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PG&E pitches its Napa County wildfire safety efforts

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Pacific Gas & Electric Co. leaders came to Atlas Peak and described steps the utility is taking to avoid sparking more Napa County wildfires, such as burying 55 miles of power lines by 2024.

The utility this year undergrounded 5 miles of lines in the Aetna Springs/Pope Valley area. It plans to bury 50 miles next year in such places as the Mayacamas Mountains west of Napa Valley, the Deer Park area and near American Canyon.

In addition, the utility plans to underground 88 miles of lines in Solano County over two years near the Napa County border. It has similar projects in neighboring Lake and Sonoma counties.

That’s part of PG&E’s larger goal of burying 10,000 miles of power lines in high fire danger areas within its Northern and Central California service area over a decade. The cost could be $15 billion to $30 billion.

“This is climate-resilient infrastructure,” PG&E's CEO Patricia Poppe told the Atlas Peak gathering on Friday.

Poppe was visiting a county that has experienced PG&E-sparked fires. Cal Fire investigations concluded that trees hitting power lines amid high winds started the 2017 Atlas and Partrick fires that enveloped Napa Valley in choking smoke, destroyed several hundred homes and killed six people.

Friday’s meeting took place outdoors at the remote Circle R Ranch, near the top of Atlas Peak northeast of the city of Napa. The Atlas Peak Appellation group invited the PG&E officials to speak.

About 30 people attended, from Atlas Peak vintners to county officials such interim County Executive Officer David Morrison, District Attorney Allison Haley, Sheriff Oscar Ortiz, Public Works Director Steven Lederer and Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza.

Poppe came to PG&E in 2021. She described her experience visiting Paradise in Butte County, an area devastated by the PG&E-sparked Camp Fire in 2018.

“I’ll never be the same and that town will never be the same,” Poppe said. “What we deliver shouldn’t scare people. We shouldn’t have to choose between being safe and having power.”

Austin Sharp of PG&E talked about steps the utility has taken in Napa County, in addition to undergrounding. It managed vegetation along 197 miles of lines and strengthened 79 miles of poles and lines. It has installed 52 weather stations.

Pedroza asked what Napa County can do to incentivize PG&E to do still more locally.

“This area in particular, we’ve been impacted in 2017…many of the people here lost their homes. They had to rebuild,” Pedroza told Poppe. "And any time there's a wind event, that comes back. So when you talk about undergrounding, it means something."

Poppe said counties and communities can encourage the California Public Utilities Commission to approve PG&E’s future undergrounding plans as filed.

“There will be a lot of opportunity for partnership to accelerate the timeliness of the regulatory proceeding so we can get busy digging dirt,” she said.

A Silverado resident brought up the idea that PG&E's work could affect fire insurance rates for the better. Buying insurance in Napa County’s high-risk wildfire areas has grown increasingly difficult and expensive in recent years.

“We think that will come,” Poppe said. “I can’t suggest we’ve had great progress yet, but we see the potential. When we see the reduction in ignitions and the reduction in acres burned and when we do the hardening of the systems, I think it’s important we then share that information with homeowner insurance companies so they can factor that into their risk modeling.”

Another person asked if PG&E would help property owners underground lines on their properties.

Poppe said these lower-voltage service lines pose a much lower risk for a catastrophic fire than the primary lines PG&E is undergrounding, though if a fallen tree is on a service line long enough, the tree can ignite.

“In lieu of cost of undergrounding (the line), we can use modern technology to confirm it doesn’t create a safety hazard,” she said. “That’s where we’re starting.”

High-tech customer meters — SmartMeters — tell control centers there is a problem with service lines so crews can be dispatched. But PG&E is looking at how to work with communities that want to underground service lines, she added.

Vintner Igor Sill had his home and winery burn in the 2017 Atlas Fire sparked by PG&E. He said before Friday’s meeting that PG&E has a different culture under Poppe.

“I’d like to see PG&E use Atlas Peak as the model for undergrounding because it’s at the highest risk in my opinion in the entire Bay Area,” Sill said.

When and if PG&E undergrounds lines on Atlas Peak and how many miles of lines it ultimately undergrounds in Napa County remains to be seen. But PG&E officials talked as if the 5 miles put underground this year is a start, not an end.

In an effort to stop sparking California wildfires, the nation's largest utility has started an ambitious project to bury 10,000 miles of power lines. Once thought to be too costly, Pacific Gas & Electric changed its mind after equipment on its power poles was blamed for starting numerous wildfires in recent years that have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes in northern and central California.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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