A year ago, a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires from overhead electrical lines went to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
It was vetoed.
The author of the measure — passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature — now says the governor missed out on a chance to tackle one of his state’s longstanding vulnerabilities: massive wildfires endangering residential communities. But the governor’s office and the California Public Utilities Commission say the bill duplicated efforts already underway among the CPUC, Cal Fire and utilities like PG&E.
Now, as a series of deadly fires rages in wine country, serious questions are once again being asked about the safety of overhead electrical wires in a state prone to drought and fierce winds.
On Wednesday, Cal Fire said that investigators have started looking into whether toppled power wires and exploding transformers Sunday night may have ignited the simultaneous string of blazes.
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.
During that same time period, radio transmissions indicate 28 blazes — both vegetation and structure fires — breaking out, mostly in Sonoma County. Firefighters were sent to eight fallen tree calls, with many reports of blocked roadways.
“Those were witnessed,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Wednesday, regarding the blown transformers and downed wires. “However, you have to go and look to see if it was a cause of the fire or as a result of the fire.”
The state’s fire agency has said it has ruled out lightning, but said the investigation continues for an official cause of the blazes, which as of late Wednesday had killed 23 people and destroyed more than 3,500 structures in Sonoma, Napa and other Northern California counties.
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.”
But meterologist Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, said that Sunday night’s winds, while strong, were not “hurricane force” and had been surpassed in previous storms. Atlas Peak had gusts of 32 miles per hour at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Null said. By comparison, the peak had gusts of 66 mph in last February.
SB 1463 had been introduced in last year’s legislative session by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. The bill would have required the state to identify the places most at risk for wildfires and would have required the CPUC to beef up plans to prevent fires sparked by power lines — including moving lines underground if necessary.
But Brown said the bill was unnecessary. “Since May of last year, the Commission and CalFire have been doing just that through the existing proceeding on fire-threat maps and fire-safety regulations,” he said in his veto message. “This deliberative process should continue and the issues this bill seeks to address should be raised in that forum.”
But the senator isn’t buying it.
“Up until my bill those guys were doing nothing,” Moorlach said Wednesday. “I think you got some false information.”
He said his bill would’ve sped up what had become a cumbersome process and given local communities more of a voice by clarifying how fire risk is defined.
Had the governor signed his bill into law, he added, “I think it would have changed things. ... I think it would’ve given Cal Fire a whole different set of priorities.”
Brown’s sister Kathleen, he pointed out, served on the board of the energy services holding company, Sempra. Power and utility companies, Moorlach said, “didn’t want to spend the money” making things safer by moving lines underground.
That’s “so outrageous it doesn’t merit a response,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said of the notion that the governor didn’t sign the bill to somehow help out Sempra. “It’s unfortunate this particular individual is trying to score political points by peddling inaccurate, self-serving claims at a time like this.”
CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the years-long CPUC and Cal Fire effort has already reached key goals.
Phase One was completed in 2015 and Phase Two is nearly done as well, which will implement new fire safety regulations in high priority areas of the state.
PG&E has paid millions of dollars in fines and settlements over the years for its failure to properly maintain vegetation clearance around its electrical lines when it led to massive fires.
In April, the state Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the Butte fire in Amador County in September 2015. That fire burned for 22 days, killing two people, destroying 549 homes and charring 70,868 acres.
In the months before this week’s deadly conflagrations, PG&E has been active in Sonoma County.
Just last month, responding to what it called California’s “tree mortality crisis” caused by the five-year drought, PG&E began flying helicopters over Sonoma County to identify dead trees “that could pose a wildfire or other public safety risk,” according to a Sept. 20 news release by the utility.
The utility said in that statement that it patrols and inspects its overhead lines annually. Since the drought and spike in tree deaths, the energy company said it’s now inspecting trees twice a year. Last year, PG&E conducted secondary checks on 68,000 miles of electrical lines. Almost 11,000 of those inspections are done by helicopter, the utility said.
The September helicopter inspections flew directly over Santa Rosa and other heavily impacted fire zones, according to the release.
In March, PG&E launched a program to inspect Sonoma County’s 90,000 wooden power poles. It was expected to last through early next year, according to a March 13 news release. The utility started along Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, in the heart of what would be torched months later.
Staff writers Paul Rogers, Lisa M. Krieger and George Avalos contributed to this report.