Wine Country Wildfires Put Spotlight on Transmission Lines

No cause has yet been attributed to California's deadliest wildfires, but the connections to fallen power lines and exploding transformers, maintained by PG&E, have been exposed in a series of reports by the Bay Area News Group.

3 minute read

October 23, 2017, 2:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Northern California Wilidfires

JEMLEN / Shutterstock

On Oct. 11, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) "said that investigators have started looking into whether toppled power wires and exploding transformers Sunday night [Oct. 8] may have ignited the simultaneous string of blazes," report Matthias Gafni and Emily DeRuy in The Mercury News.

The acknowledgment followed publication of a review by the Bay Area News Group of Sonoma County firefighters’ radio transmissions in the fires’ infancy that found that there were numerous downed and arcing wires. In the first 90 minutes Sunday night, firefighters were sent to 10 different spots where problems had been reported with the area’s electrical infrastructure. The crews reported seeing sparking lines and transformers.

PG&E acknowledges there were troubles with its equipment Sunday night, but says blaming the utility’s electrical system for the fires at this point would be “highly speculative.” It has labeled the conditions in the first hours of the fires a “historic wind event.”

Mapping and regulations

Gafni and DeRuy report that a bill approved last year, SB 1463Electrical lines: mitigation of wildfire risks, by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, "would have required the state to identify the places most at risk for wildfires and would have required the [California Public Utilities Commission] CPUC to beef up plans to prevent fires sparked by power lines — including moving lines underground if necessary."

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the bill, claiming it was "unnecessary" because "the Commission and CalFire have been doing just that through the existing proceeding on fire-threat maps and fire-safety regulations."

Fire hazard mapping, it turns out, is key to determining which transmission wires are most at risk. Gafni reports on Oct. 22 that the CPUC has been working to update the fire maps for 10 years. Worse yet, the state's electric utilities have "helped stall the effort."

A review of the mapping project by the Bay Area News Group shows that utilities have repeatedly asked to slow down the effort and argued as recently as July that, as PG&E put it, certain proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

Gafni also reports that the Northern California wildfires have "killed at least 42 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and businesses."


DeRuy reports on Oct. 18 that a Santa Rosa couple, Wayne and Jennifer Harvell, who lived in the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood, is the first to sue PG&E over their role in the fires.

The Harvells allege that the utility company failed to adequately maintain power lines, leading to the destruction of their Coffey Park house and at least 1,000 others in the neighborhood as the Tubbs fire consumed the region.

A table [jpg] showing notable wildfires caused by power lines since 1923, including acres burned and structures destroyed, was provided by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who has been both a CPUC and PG&E watchdog since a PG&E natural gas main exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people.

Hat tip to David McCoard.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 in The Mercury News

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