Report: California power company has resisted efforts to map risky power lines

portugal power lines wildfire
File photo of power lines near a wildfire in Portugal, 2012.

Following the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires that destroyed more than 1,300 homes and killed two people in Southern California in 2007, state officials began attempting to force the utility companies to produce maps designating areas where their power lines present the highest risk for starting wildfires. The three large fires in 2007 were sparked by issues with lines operated by San Diego Gas and Electric.

CAL FIRE has not released the causes of the huge fires that started in Northern California October 8 during very strong winds, but at about the same time firefighters were first responding to numerous fires, they also received multiple calls about fallen power lines and electrical transformers exploding. In the next week, the stock price of the company that provides electrical service for large areas of Northern California, Pacific Gas and Electric, dropped 22 percent.

According to the Mercury News, PG&E has been fighting the efforts to map powerline risk areas since 2007. Below is an excerpt from their article:

A review of the mapping project by the Bay Area News Group shows that utilities have repeatedly asked to slow down the effort and argued as recently as July that, as PG&E put it, certain proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

On Oct. 6, two days before the start of the deadliest outbreak of wildfires in California history, two administrative law judges assigned to oversee the project granted yet another delay at the request of PG&E and other utilities.

[…]

[PG&E] claimed there was no evidence that wildfires had been caused by poles not being able to withstand high winds.

The Northern California fires killed at least 43 people and destroyed about 8,900 structures.

Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado ran fine-scale simulations (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the wind during the time the fires started. Her research showed significantly higher surface wind speeds than previously thought — 75 to 90 mph just upwind of the major fires.

California law dictates that power lines are supposed to be able to withstand 56 mph.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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15 thoughts on “Report: California power company has resisted efforts to map risky power lines”

  1. Why does that not surprise me? This problem is all over the place! I personally have seen it( the lack of maintenance and ground clearing around power lines and towers) on several fires around the west. In some places, it was downright scary!! Sure hope somebody gets a clue and starts dealing with it properly.

    1. This problem is all over the place!
      I borrowed Chris Skinner’s words because the same problem has occurred across Canada.
      Trees blown onto powerlines caused many wildfires in Alberta during the May 2011 wind events.
      Ontario Hydro had a PR nightmare (again) when trees took down powerlines over the Christmas holidays about 4 years ago. They finally got off their butts the following summer to do some right-of-way maintenance.
      The lack of maintenance and ground clearing around power lines and towers saves money. Power companies are simply playing the risk management game. It is cheaper to pay the lawsuits.

  2. i know that the way things are now,with all the deregulation,it needs to change,companies like PG&E need to be regulated and have the feds set price maximums,weve already been told we will pay higher premiums after these fires,as if its our fault their lines go down.after the gas explosion in the SF bay area,they were told by the courts that they could not raise rates to pay for the fines,yet they did raise prices,they got clever and called the increases by another name/reason .a news reporter out of Sacramento named walt gray tried to get to the bottom of it and was told to “mind his own business” not by PG&E but by state authorities,told him to back off.pg&e is not a monopoly as att was,but they are way to big and powerfull.back in the 80s i lived in a small apartment and was rarely ever there,my bills were being generated at $9.00 at the most,so they started to come to the manager and demanded to be let into my apt to look for issues and to see if i was reversing the meter,when they couldnt find me at fault ( its good to be good friends with people like the county DA) they sent me a letter and told me it made no difference if i used it or not,but my bill would be set at $50.00 a month.period.i fought back and won,but the DA at the time told me PG&E had gone to him to try to have me prosecuted for utilities fraud.
    bottomline,theyre a bunch of crooks and should be held accountable for their actions,and lack there of.

    also the structure count is now at 8900 statewide and 43 deaths..
    http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/communications_StatewideFireSummary

  3. Thanks for all the hard work you do on your website. I really appreciate it and learn a lot from reading here. I write to add a few corrections on this issue – I’m an energy lawyer familiar with how these issues are handled both in court and before the CPUC.

    Current California law is that utilities like PG&E are strictly liable for any damage associated with wires igniting wildfire (google “Butte Fire inverse condemnation” to see what I mean). What this means in practice is that homeowners or insurance companies will get compensated by PG&E for any damages, no matter what the wind speed was. Then, PG&E will ask the CPUC to allow the judgments to be included as expenses in their rates (SDG&E is currently asking for this for the 2007 fire). That means that all California utility customers will be charged for a share of the costs – assuming that PG&E has complied with the tree maintenance requirements set by the CPUC. If PG&E didn’t maintain trees adequately, then we are in a “San Bruno” situation, where the issue will be how to keep the utility from charging ratepayers while at the same time keeping it from going out of business or being materially weakened, which would itself end up costing PG&E customers money, but in a different way.

    1. It’s been my experience as a “power line” caused fire victim, that after years if dekay the insurers paying for power companirs errors will subvert recovery efforts as much as legally possible, maybe more. The formula is to pay off insurance claims first separating fire victims from their insurance company to acquire any available discovery evidence held by insurer from the injured party. In my case they then cut a deal with plaintiff’s lawyers guaranteeing legal fees in undisclosed “confidential” agreements whereby fire victims were enticed to settle for benefits in binding mediation which delivers “confidential” settlements way lower than expected. That’s how fire victims’ lawyers acquire undisclosed fees , on top of percentage of awards. Beware of settlement offers, even from your own attorney, they can make secret deals and call it mediated and confidential to prrevent disclosure. Hard to conceal all details though, so many details and recorded items. My attotneys slipped up and I’m looking for racketeering charges from the Feds. against all other parties to fraud against disaster victims. Slow going, big insurance is well connected as are large power companies.

    2. You are correct regarding Ca. statutes holding power companies responsible for damages from “power line causes”.
      That’s what lawmakers intended, so the public can recover, rebuild and move on. Somehow, in the Oct. 2007 fires in northern San Diego County, some combination of entities saw a means to avoid the requirements of
      “Inverse Condemnation” and save Sempra corp. (SDGE’S parent corp),
      SDGE and the real party most exposed, SDGE’S insurance carrier(s) from legal requirements to cover fire victims’
      legal costs.
      After paying 100% of claims to govt entities,
      a years long denial and delay process for the settlement of smaller claims by individuals was initiated on behalf of SDGE by Quinn Emanuel & associates, one of the largest legal firms in the USA , intended to save SDGE & insurers as much as a billion dollars in claimant’s compensation for legal fees as “inverse” allows. By not allowing a jury trial for over five years, claimants were advised to have a mediated award issued which would approxomate “inverse”
      statutory benefits.
      Problem was as documents recently discovered show, the promised “award” was a confidential and final settlement which was a bait and switch scam in which insurers or SDGE paid undisclosed legal fees from damages only claims, reducing these amounts by 60% to accommodate the secret payments to claimants attorneys. The remaining 40% was given to claimants as the “mediator’s award” where these same attorneys charged their clients another 40% as legal fees. It appears SDGE’S avoiding a 50% on top of awards, as promised in the mediation agreement, and 75% of total damages to fire victims’ attorneys both secret, and disclosed, was enough to allow claimants attorneys to misrepresent the award process. Secrecy of mediations assured both concealment of the awards and satisfaction of claimants attorneys, as well as preventing a jury finding SDGE’S actions as negligent,
      (Which PUC&CALFIRE says they were) allowing SDGE to attempt to pass thru uninsured losses to customers under the same inverse condemnation statute
      they had successfully subverted in paying claims.
      Fraud against “declared disaster victims” is a federal crime, as well as a “Rico” scheme applied to all fire victims instead of due process for those wanting a trial. Attorney’s clients who elected not to mediate, were dropped as clients after waiting for years for recovery.
      These actions are forming a federal rico complaint as the Ca. St.
      Attorney General or the Ca. PUC seem uninterested thus far. The Governors sister on the Sempra board of directors might be a good investment on Sempra’s part.
      I worry that the recent losses experienced in
      Northern Calif. will face the same racketeering and delay formula as so far, it has been a successful means to skirt their obligations under the law, while lucrative enough to enlist claimant’s own attorney’s participation, as if conflict of interest and codes of professional conduct didn’t even exist. It was all “confidential”,
      except fraud cannot be concealed by mediation privilege, per Ca. Evid. Codes. When acquiring legal representation, beware of any agreement that allows attorneys to keep all funds allowed by the court, but not agreeing to releasing their clients from contingency fees pre agreed to, when fire victims are normally still in shock.
      I’ll report what the FBI says when this scam is layed out in a formal complaint.
      Seeing the faces on the news of those returning to smoldering ash piles where their homes used to be, brought it all back like Oct. 2007 was yesterday. God bless the firefighters, fire victims living and otherwise, and their families. They’ll need all the help they can get. Be Strong !
      The pain will pass and life will move ahead ,
      hopefully the law will be implemented as intended.
      Any investigative reporters are invited to contact me for further details and supporting documentation.
      Mike & Sydney Van Zee
      mjvanzee@aol.com
      Fallbrook, Calif.

    3. To Mike W, I wish I could afford an attorney’s advice following a decade of attempted recovery from the 2007 “rice” fire. Unfortunately, the settlement process employed to handle claims was a court supervised secret agreement entered into by all parties except the actual plaintiffs suing for recovery of losses. Claims were not handled per the inverse statutes and fire victims from the three large Oct. 2007 fires in North San Diego County, were not afforded their rights under inverse or due process, due to a pre-arranged and undisclosed agreement between attorneys on both sides prior to any ADR efforts. While SDG&E’s actions before and immediately after the fires, were investigated by Calif. PUC, CPSD and Cal-fire, these investigations’conclusions generated citations and $ 14.8 million in fines for SDG&E who still denies any error or violation of state regulations on their part. Sempra Corp. SDG&E’s parent corporation CEO said when questioned in the press regarding paying the fines, ” we just want to move forward here” ( paraphrasing here) as if paying the fines, didn’t indicate they had any liability in the origins of the fires. SDG&E’s official position is still it was an “act of God” wind event, as if the October winds were a surprise. Other comments I’ve written on this site outline the specifics of the settlement scam protocols which will hopefully assist and inform fire victims of some of the legal hazards of mediating a confidential and final settlement, which in our case, utilized fraud hoping mediation privilege would forever conceal fire victims’ insufficient and secretly reduced awards and ensuing complaints . I’d like to do more to prevent such treatment ever being repeated for the sake of those who already in many cases, lost everything. Fire victims should be protected and compensated under the inverse condemnation statutes as the legislature intended, rather than be forced to help mitigate power company and insurer’s losses in silence with tainted settlement awards. If you care to communicate with me directly I’d be most appreciative of your interest, Mike Van Zee mivanzee@aol.com

      1. Yes that fire took my home, Business,rental and all my personal belongings and also was injured running from the flames. My Attorneys took half of a settlement that I couldn’t begin to even replace my home with much less my business. I know for a fact they had a deal with sdg&e from day one . God these assholes don’t give a crap …. its not there life

    1. Mike, welcome to Wildfire Today. All comments here are moderated, but not modified. That simply means they sit in a queue until they can be reviewed, after which one of two things happen — they are either approved or, if they are spam or otherwise violate our terms of service, they are deleted.

  4. Comments of 11/1 are rewritten for 11/5 comments, which includes more detail and less misspelled words. Please feel free to remove my comments of 11/1 as repetative and incomplete. Your call but I’ll provide better comments the first time from now on. Your website is valued for providing aspects and details the public press is reluctant to look into.
    The large power companies and their imsurers are used to sharing “their” version of events and the media seems to respond meekly in my experiences.

  5. To all the victims of the Oct ’07 San Diego wildfires, the CaPUC’s regulatory assessment division within the CPED, the consumer protection and enforcement division has received a complaint outlining the charges arising from recently discovered evidence. The evidence indicates a secret agreement whereby for steering clients into the false promises of recovery through a “mediator’s award”, where the actual confidential award is 25% of losses with 75% taken by fire victims own attorneys as fees. The power co gets no jury verdicts of negligence which would prevent an attempt to pass losses to customers and sidesteps paying claimant’s legal fees saving a billion dollars for insurers thru secret bait & switch confidential settlements. They promise recovery plus legal costs as the law allows but secretly let your own attorney to take what they want with the power co paying damages only w/o legal fees . Mediation company makes a big payday all the lawyers are happy, only fire victims get victimized again by paying the freight for this charade. EXCEPT !
    Confidentiality cannot be used to conceal fraud!
    So start calling the cops.
    If they ask for evidence give them my email address and I’ll gladly provide it. Let’s apply pressure to investigate before they rape the northern Calif fire victims like they did in so Cal in ’07. These scams must be stopped.
    The fire’s victims are too vulnerable – you see it in their blank stares, looking at their lifes work turned to ash piles. They look just like we did in 2007. All info I’ve shared is no BS and every agency of every authority needs to prosecute these miscreants in suits. I’m disabled, retired and highly pissed off and demand and need justice as do many, many others. It’s nothing less than fraud and grand theft, after everything you ever had gets burned up by negligent corporations. This could give lawyers a bad name
    Mike Van Zee
    mjvanzee@aol.com

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