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Calif. regulators order utilities to reduce wildfire hazards across wide zones

California electric utilities will have to increase tree and shrub cutting, step up equipment repairs and take other steps to prevent wildfires across thousands of square miles of high-hazard zones, the state Public Utilities Commission decided.

Pointing to recent and ongoing major wildfires in the service territories of PG&E Corp. subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co., the PUC adopted regulations Dec. 14 to increase vegetation clearances for power lines and equipment, increase clearance between wires for new and reconstructed facilities and step up equipment inspections and repairs.

The decision will require additional but unquantified costs for electric utilities and communications infrastructure providers that share power line easements and utility poles. The investor-owned electric utilities were authorized to track the costs they incur and file applications to recover those costs until they can include future expenditures in their general rate cases.

The commission and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention have developed a statewide fire threat map that depicts areas where there is an elevated hazard for the ignition and rapid spread of power line fires due to strong winds, abundant dry vegetation and other environmental conditions. As the commissioners spoke, high Santa Ana winds and tinder-dry conditions continued to frustrate firefighting efforts in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where more than 245,000 acres have been scorched and SoCalEd's transmission lines and customers have been threatened since the fire began Dec. 4.

Also, the agencies are developing a statewide fire and wind map as the basis for establishing wind-load standards for utilities to reinforce poles and other equipment against severe winds, which can knock down equipment that can then ignite wildfires and fan the flames, Commission President Michael Picker said.

The fire threat map designates areas in three tiers, with tier 3 being the most hazardous and requiring the most stringent fire prevention efforts. For example, electric utilities will be required to inspect all facilities in tier 3 zones every six months, with annual inspections in tier 2 zones. The tier 3 zones cover 8,799 square miles statewide and tier 2 covers 65,957 square miles, more than one-third of the state's landmass. Combined, the two zones cover a total land area more than double the interim fire threat maps utilities had been following.

"Tier 3 is distinguished from Tier 2 by having the highest likelihood of utility-associated fire initiation and growth that would impact people or property, and where the most restrictive utility regulations are necessary to reduce utility fire risk," the PUC said in its decision.

The six-month and annual inspections will be simple visual inspections of utility equipment to identify obvious structural problems and hazards, but less-frequent detailed inspection cycles will also be required. A detailed inspection of communications facilities, for example, is defined in the decision as using binoculars and measuring devices as appropriate.

Picker, who presided over proceedings in which the new regulations were prepared, said, "This is a major rewrite of fire prevention rules for utility poles, maintenance and vegetation management."

The scope of the problem is increasing with climate change that has resulted in major bark beetle infestations and destruction of trees across 9 million acres, Picker said. While wildfires in Southern California in 2007 spurred dozens of new fire safety regulations, a lot more must be done to protect lives and property, he said. The new regulations are highly technical and cover major parts of the state, he said.

The nature of electric service will be different in some communities, Picker said. For example, the new rules will allow electric utilities in high-risk zones to disconnect customers who refuse to allow access to their properties to mitigate fire hazards.

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said the commission will have to examine how the large costs of managing increased vegetation removal and constant inspections get paid. She noted the state has the highest variance of precipitation in the nation, which leads to rapid tree and plant growth followed by drought and dry conditions that fuel fires.

Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said this year's wildfires dramatically underscore that year-round fire threats are the "new normal" for California and this constant state of high risk requires constant vigilance. The PUC will need to continually update its efforts, he said.