Why Tougher Fire Safety Rules for Utility Companies Took 10 Years

November 20, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle
By David R. Baker

For 10 days in October of 2007, wildfires riding hot Santa Ana winds swept across Southern California, forcing nearly 1 million people to flee and killing 10. When the ashes cooled, investigators found that many of the blazes had been caused by electrical lines swaying or falling in the wind.

So state regulators resolved to tighten fire safety rules for electric utilities. They quickly passed new regulations for Southern California and began developing rules for the rest of the state.

It would take 10 years.

On Nov. 8 of this year, exactly a month after the most destructive wildfire event in California history began sweeping across the Wine Country, the California Public Utilities Commission finally released its proposal. It would require utilities to prioritize safety repairs in high fire risk zones, follow new timetables for inspecting equipment in the field and keep tree limbs farther away from many power lines.

The proposal, which could go before the commission’s five voting members for approval as soon as December, comes as state investigators try to determine whether power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. may have played a role in sparking last month’s catastrophic fires. Those fires charred 210,000 acres, destroyed 8,900 structures and killed at least 43 people.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has not announced a cause for any of the fires, and the investigation could take months. No evidence has surfaced that indicates whether tougher regulations on power lines and utility poles could have prevented them.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, suspects the Wine Country fires prodded the commission to move forward with its proposed rules, so long in the making. “It’s a slow process because it’s bureaucratic, and perhaps it allows more utility involvement and influence than appropriate,” he said.