A firefighter on scene of the Glass Fire in Calistoga, California, on Oct. 1. California’s record-breaking wildfires have consumed about 1 million acres in just the past month, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. (Noah Berger/AP)
By ELIZABETH ECHOLS |PUBLISHED: April 27, 2021 at 5:15 a.m. | UPDATED: April 27, 2021 at 5:33 a.m.
Pacific Gas and Electric has shown us time and again that it is not protecting its customers. The company’s repeated mistakes have left a trail of death and destruction from the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion to wildfires in five of the last six years. PG&E’s failures have taken a devastating toll – killing more than 120 people and causing more than $25 billion in damages. That is more than the state spends annually on K-12 education in PG&E’s service territory.
And still, PG&E proposes a wildfire safety plan that does not go far enough to protect Californians from fires caused by its equipment.
Right now, the California Public Utilities Commission has an opportunity to require that PG&E take substantial and meaningful steps to fix its wildfire safety plan. As we saw with the North Bay fires of 2017, fires caused by utility power lines are particularly dangerous because they often ignite near homes and during wind storms.
Problems with PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Plan
PG&E’s plan fails to address serious flaws. The Public Advocates Office – the independent consumer advocate at the CPUC – has identified at least four significant deficiencies that PG&E should address immediately:https://f9c63d7aba586ee4d843795aeec02f9f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
• Shoddy management. PG&E’s plan does not do enough to improve management oversight and the quality of its work. The company’s managers neglected to prioritize inspections in high-risk areas, paid people to verify tree-trimming work that was never done, failed to communicate inspection procedures to its workers, and did not keep track of its contractors’ work.
• Ineffective tree-trimming program. PG&E trimmed trees in places where the fire threat is less than in neighborhoods where there is a high risk of wildfires. Why is PG&E sending tree trimmers to lower-risk neighborhoods rather than high-risk ones? This negligence is like putting your child in a car seat but neglecting to fix the brakes.
• Insufficient inspections. PG&E is the only large utility in the state not using helicopters or drones to inspect more of its distribution lines in areas with high wildfire risks. Why isn’t PG&E using every reasonable tool to inspect the power lines?
• Grid upgrades in the wrong places. Grid upgrades should make the system that brings electricity to your house safer and more fire-resistant. At PG&E’s proposed pace, it will take more than twenty years to reach the areas with the highest wildfire risk. Why is PG&E spending its time and our money in the wrong places?
PG&E is using billions of dollars of customers’ money irresponsibly. In 2020, instead of properly executing its wildfire safety plan, PG&E did what was cheap and easy to pad its inspection numbers. And for 2021, PG&E proposes more of the same; the same managers, the same easy-to-count but ineffective measures, the same high costs, and the same indifference to lost lives and devastation.
Not one more person should see their home burn – or worse – because of a preventable utility-caused wildfire.
The CPUC must require PG&E to protect Californians from future devastation. The CPUC can stop PG&E from causing further harm by enforcing greater transparency and enhanced safety oversight. That is why we recommend PG&E immediately revise its wildfire safety plan to focus on the riskiest areas, strengthen its management oversight so it can better review its own safety performance, and beef up its safety inspections.
Californians should not have to live in fear of wildfires. We deserve much better.
Elizabeth Echols is the director of the Public Advocates Office, the independent consumer advocate at the California Public Utilities Commission.