- Wildfires in California have bedeviled the state for weeks, and with electric utilities under increasing scrutiny for possible roles in these disasters, regulators have taken steps to reduce the risk that power equipment could be at fault.
- The California Public Utilities Commission last week approved new fire prevention policies that include new rules for utility poles and wires and changes to vegetation management policies.
- The state's wildfires are fueled by dry conditions and high winds, but investigators have said electric utility equipment may be a cause of the initial blaze. Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric are both under investigation by California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) as possible causes of two fires.
More than 40% of California is now considered at high risk of fire. CPUC President Michael Picker says the reason is climate change, and is compelling the state's utilities to operate under enhanced rules to reduce risks.
“This new policy includes significant new fire prevention rules for utility poles and wires, including major new rules for vegetation management,” Picker said in a statement.
The commission said a final draft of the CPUC Fire-Threat Map was "reviewed by a team of independent experts," led by Cal Fire and is scheduled to come for a vote early next year.
"The map includes a broader definition of fire threat and also shows how dramatically climate impacts are increasing fire risks," Picker said. Land that is covered in the "elevated, high and tree mortality fire hazard areas" has grown 31,000 square miles to 70,000 square miles, or about 44% of California’s total land area.
The new rules also allow electric utilities to disconnect service to customers who refuse to provide access to their property for the removal of trees "that pose an immediate threat for contacting a power line," the commission said. The new regulations also require communications infrastructure providers to conduct detailed inspections of their overhead facilities at specified minimum frequencies in certain areas.
“The ever growing threat of climate change and the wildfires in Northern and Southern California underscore how extremely vigilant we need to be combating the threat of wildfire,” Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said. “These regulations are a very important step, but we also need to continually evaluate whether our wildfire safety practices are enough.”
California utilities have faced scrutiny for their possible roles in sparking some of the state's blazes, leading to questions of who should be responsible for those costs. State lawmakers say they intend to propose new legislation next year that would block investor-owned utilities from recovering the costs associated with wildfires if they are determined to be at fault.
SCE issued a statement earlier this month related to the Thomas fire and Cal Fire's investigations.
"SCE believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities," the utility said. "SCE continues to cooperate with the investigations. The wildfire investigations may take a considerable amount of time to complete. SCE will provide updated information as circumstances warrant."