California Regulators Back Fire Safety Rules Following Lethal Infernos

California Regulators Back Fire Safety Rules Following Lethal Infernos

PG&E and other utilities in the fire-prone Golden State would be required to increase the minimum clearances between trees and other vegetation and electrical equipment such as power and transmission lines.

by George Avalos, The Mercury News / December 15, 2017
J.D. Roel salvages a scrap of melted metal from a friend’s property after a wildfire raged through the Loch Lomond area of Lake County, Calif., Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Gov. Jerry Brown requested a presidential disaster declaration on Monday, noting that more than 1,000 homes had been confirmed destroyed, with the number likely to go higher as assessment continues. AP/Noah Berger

(TNS) – State regulators on Thursday approved new rules aimed at improving fire safety in multiple areas of California, a move taken after an array of deadly infernos in the North Bay and Southern California.

PG&E and other utilities in the fire-prone Golden State would be required to increase the minimum clearances between trees and other vegetation and electrical equipment such as power and transmission lines, under wide-ranging rules adopted by the Public Utilities Commission.

“This decision adopts new regulations to enhance the fire safety of overhead electric power lines and communication lines located in high fire-threat areas,” PUC staffers wrote in a proposal that was approved by the PUC.

The decision establishes a “high fire-threat district” in California. The primary areas in the fire district include the state’s coastal ranges from the Oregon border south to San Diego, the rural districts near Lake Shasta, the Cascade mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, the Lake Tahoe and lake’s foothill regions, the Gold Country, the Wine Country and nearby regions, the eastern edges of California along the Nevada state line, and the mountains and hills that border Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

The primary areas that are excluded in a moderate to lower risk are the state’s southern deserts, the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and the metro areas that center on Sacramento, San Francisco, Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley, the East Bay shores between Oakland and Fremont, and the Santa Clara Valley, including San Jose.

Officials cautioned that these maps are only preliminary and won’t be finalized until sometime next year.

The PUC decision also established three regions of fire risk consisting of varying categories. One region consists of hazardous zones identified by federal and state forestry experts as areas containing numerous dying or dead trees. The second region is derived from a PUC fire-threat map with areas that have an “elevated risk” for fires linked to utility operations and equipment. The third area is based on a PUC map showing areas with an “extreme risk” for wildfires associated with utilities.

“This new policy includes significant new fire prevention rules for utility poles and wires, including major new rules for vegetation management,” PUC president Michael Picker said.

The areas covered by the new rules provided a sobering assessment of the fast-expanding fire risk in California.

“Land that is covered in the elevated, high and tree mortality fire hazard areas has grown from 31,000 square miles to 70,000 square miles,” Picker noted. “That’s 44 percent of California’s total land area.”

Among the changes: PG&E and other utilities would be allowed to disconnect electricity service to customers who refuse to allow utilities to access their property to remove trees that pose an immediate hazard to a power line.

San Francisco-based PG&E and other utility companies would be obliged to prioritize their corrections of safety hazards depending, in part, on whether the hazard is in the high fire-threat district that the PUC established on Thursday.

Plus non-immediate fire threat risks would have to be corrected within one year in the area of “elevated risk” and within six months in the area designated as “extreme risk” under the PUC decision.

A final draft of the statewide fire-threat map is being reviewed by independent experts led by CAL Fire officials. The PUC is due to adopt the ultimate fire map sometime in 2018.

The PUC also ordered its Safety and Enforcement Division to work with CAL Fire to craft a statewide fire-wind map for the purpose of establishing fire-wind-load regulations for utility infrastructure.

“The wildfires in Northern and Southern California underscore how extremely vigilant we need to be combating the threat of wildfire,” PUC Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said. “These regulations are a very important step.”

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©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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