Pacific Gas & Electric vows to improve wildfire prevention

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SAN FRANCISCO — The nation’s largest utility on Wednesday promised to overhaul its wildfire-prevention measures in response to growing legal, financial and public pressure for its role in starting some of the most destructive blazes in California history.

In a regulatory filing, Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. proposed to build weather stations, fireproof more miles of electrical wires and shut off power to more of its 5.4 million customers more often when wildfire danger is highest. The embattled utility also vowed to increase inspections, cut more trees and work with forestry experts to lessen its role in starting wildfires.

A new state law passed in response to the destructive 2017 wildfires required the state’s utilities to file their wildfire-prevention plans with the California Public Utilities Commission. The agency has scheduled several public meetings to review and amend the proposals before they are adopted.

A federal judge who said he’s skeptical of PG&E’s safety commitment also demanded the wildfire plan.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup is threatening to impose sweeping prevention measures on the utility, proposals PG&E said could cost as much $150 billion. Alsup ruled last month that PG&E response to a 2017 wildfire violated probation terms included in its felony conviction for a deadly 2010 natural pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb.

In response, Alsup proposed PG&E workers inspect, document and rate every inch of its 2,400 square-mile electrical system and remove or trim trees threatening to touch equipment and start fires. PG&E said that could require removing up to 100 million trees. Alsup said he will determine PG&E’s sentence later.

On Wednesday, PG&E proposed removing 375,000 trees this year after cutting down 160,000 last year. PG&E also said it would increase in-depth pole inspections from 9,400 last year to 40,600 this year and building 200 weather stations in addition to the 200 existing stations.

The utility said it also planned to bury underground or wrap in insulation 150 miles of bare wire next year and 7,100 miles over the next decade.

State fire authorities blamed PG&E’s equipment for starting 17 major wildfires in the last two years. The San Francisco-based utility is facing more than 1,000 wildfire-related lawsuits. The utility filed for bankruptcy last month, saying the lawsuits could cost more than $30 billion.

PG&E estimated the plan will cost it about $2.3 billion next year.

Seven other utilities, including Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric also submitted plans Wednesday, but none included the significant reforms PG&E was proposing.

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