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PG&E expands area for potential blackouts to 5 million customers as part of wildfire-prevention plan

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Embattled Pacific Gas & Electric Co. would expand to more than 5 million the number of customers that could temporarily have their power shut off this year as part of a wildfire-safety proposal the utility submitted Wednesday to state regulators.

In addition, PG&E wants to clear and remove trees and vegetation covering 2,450 miles, as well as install additional fire-spotter cameras and weather-monitoring stations to provide early warnings of fire danger.

The utility, which services Northern and Central California, said its wildfire-prevention plan would cost an estimated $2.3 billion in 2019 and include all of its 5.4 million customers. PG&E filed the plan with the California Public Utilities Commission to comply with a state law enacted last year in response to the state’s 2017 wildfires.

If the plan gets approved, the utility would spend significantly more for fire prevention and vegetation management than it has in previous years. In 2017, the most recent year for which figures were immediately available, PG&E spent $649 million on fire safety, according to a 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On Jan. 29, the company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors, in an attempt to stave off an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from California fires in 2017 and 2018. State fire authorities blamed the utility’s equipment for igniting 17 major fires in the last two years. However, the state two weeks ago said PG&E was not responsible for starting the October 2017 Tubbs fire that erupted in Calistoga and burned into Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and destroying 5,636 structures, including 4,651 homes.

The utility’s fire-safety submission expands on its 2018 plan — its first such proposal — that called for temporary power shut-offs to 570,000 customers in high-risk fire areas. In October, PG&E cut electricity to areas of Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, leading to an outcry from residents and business owners.

Antonia Gutierrez, the owner of Cafe San Marco in Calistoga, said she lost around $600 of ice cream, along with milk and other dessert items during the power outage, which lasted over 12 hours. She said business owners in Calistoga met with representatives of PG&E last year, but were told the utility would not reimburse businesses for lost revenue.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said the utility’s fire-prevention plan is “a start.” He said the county plans to work with PG&E on efforts to better prepare for potential fires.

He questioned whether the new proposal went far enough, noting for example that PG&E plans to harden 150 miles of electrical wires, while Sonoma County alone has over 7,000 miles of PG&E wires.

“Are we nipping around the edges or are we actually making progress in terms of mitigating fire danger going forward?” Rabbitt said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny in terms of making sure this has the impact that it’s meant to.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said PG&E’s proposed expansion of preventative blackouts and tree removal were “promising” as hedges against catastrophic wildfires.

But the scope of PG&E’s service area from Bakersfield to Eureka and “the magnitude of fires from the North Bay to Butte County,” Dodd said, makes him wonder if the plan is sufficient.

“It’s certainly more than they have ever done, but I just have to ask myself: Is it enough?” he said.

Dodd co-chaired the special legislative committee that crafted a comprehensive wildfire response bill last year, including the mandate for PG&E and five other electric companies to submit plans to defend against fiery disasters in an era of climate change that makes the conflagrations likely to continue.

The state Public Utilities Commission followed up by ordering the utilities to submit 20-point fire prevention plans by this month.

Meanwhile, the senator said, residents, especially those in rural areas, “have to ask themselves what are we going to do to protect our property” from fire threats.

Establishing the recommended 100 feet of “defensible space” around homes “gives you an eight times better chance of your house surviving a wildfire,” he said.

Dodd said he is working on legislation that would offer cities and counties a model ordinance for mandating defensible space, along with the possibility of financial incentives for compliance.

Patrick McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist who lost his Fountaingrove home in the Tubbs fire, said he had not seen the plan but expressed hope “it brings PG&E to a safety standard we all can trust.”

McCallum, the head of a coalition called Up from the Ashes, said he wonders if California’s largest utility has sufficient staff and training to “do what’s needed.”

And beyond plans on paper, he said PG&E needs a “culture change” that espouses “safety first” from the top down.

“It’s clear that culture has not been in place,” he said. If the investor-owned utility can’t bring about such a change, McCallum said the courts or state lawmakers may have to make it happen.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, said the San Francisco-based watchdog group intends to go over PG&E plan “with a fine-tooth comb.”

The group, known as TURN, would like to see “some sort of demonstration of the effectiveness of current and proposed mitigation measures,” she said.

Shutting off power lines in anticipation of fires “is not a solution,” she said, characterizating the intentional blackouts as “an emergency response to PG&E’s criminal failures and incompetence.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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