State looks into top­pled wires, ex­plod­ing transformers as causes

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Matthias Gafni and Emily DeRuy Staff writ­ers

A year ago, a bi­par­ti­san bill aimed at re­duc­ing the risk of wild­fires from over­head elec­tri­cal lines went to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

It was ve­toed.

The au­thor of the mea­sure — passed unan­i­mously by both houses of the Leg­is­la­ture — now says the gover­nor missed out on a chance to tackle one of his state’s long­stand­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties: mas­sive wild­fires en­dan­ger­ing res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties. But the gover­nor’s of­fice and the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion say the bill du­pli­cated ef­forts al­ready un­der­way among the CPUC, Cal Fire and util­i­ties like PG&E.

Now, as a se­ries of deadly fires rages in Wine Coun­try, se­ri­ous ques­tions are once again be­ing asked about the safety of over­head elec­tri­cal wires in a state prone to drought and fierce winds.

On Wed­nes­day, Cal Fire said that in­ves­ti­ga­tors have started look­ing into whether top­pled power wires and ex­plod­ing trans-

for­m­ers Sun­day night may have ig­nited the si­mul­ta­ne­ous string of blazes.

The ac­knowl­edg­ment fol­lowed pub­li­ca­tion of a re­view by the Bay Area News Group of Sonoma County fire­fight­ers’ ra­dio trans­mis­sions in the fires’ in­fancy that found that there were nu­mer­ous downed and arc­ing wires. In the first 90 min­utes Sun­day night, fire­fight­ers were sent to 10 dif­fer­ent spots where problems had been re­ported with the area’s elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture. The crews re­ported see­ing spark­ing lines and transformers.

Dur­ing that same time pe­riod, ra­dio trans­mis­sions in­di­cate 28 blazes — both veg­e­ta­tion and struc­ture fires — break­ing out, mostly in Sonoma County. Fire­fight­ers were sent to eight fallen tree calls, with many re­ports of blocked road­ways.

“Those were wit­nessed,” Cal Fire spokes­woman Lynne Tol­ma­choff said Wed­nes­day, re­gard­ing the blown transformers and downed wires. “How­ever, you have to go and look to see if it was a cause of the fire or as a re­sult of the fire.”

The state’s fire agency has said it has ruled out light­ning, but said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues for an of­fi­cial cause of the blazes, which as of late Wed­nes­day had killed 23 peo­ple and de­stroyed more than 2,000 homes in Sonoma, Napa and other North­ern Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties.

PG&E ac­knowl­edges there were trou­bles with its equip­ment Sun­day night, but says blam­ing the util­ity’s elec­tri­cal sys­tem for the fires at this point would be “highly spec­u­la­tive.” It has la­beled the con­di­tions in the first hours of the fires a “his­toric wind event.”

But me­terol­o­gist Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Ser­vice in Saratoga, said that Sun­day night’s winds, while strong, were not “hur­ri­cane force” and had been sur­passed in pre­vi­ous storms. At­las Peak had gusts of 32 mph at 9 p.m. on Sun­day night, Null said. By com­par­i­son, the peak had gusts of 66 mph last Fe­bru­ary.

SB 1463 had been in­tro­duced in last year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion by Sen. John Moor­lach, R-Costa Mesa. The bill would have re­quired the state to iden­tify the places most at risk for wild­fires and would have re­quired the CPUC to beef up plans to pre­vent fires sparked by power lines — in­clud­ing mov­ing lines un­der­ground if nec­es­sary.

But Brown said the bill was un­nec­es­sary. “Since May of last year, the Com­mis­sion and Cal Fire have been do­ing just that through the ex­ist­ing pro­ceed­ing on fire-threat maps and fire-safety reg­u­la­tions,” he said in his veto mes­sage. “This de­lib­er­a­tive process should con­tinue and the is­sues this bill seeks to ad­dress should be raised in that fo­rum.”

But the se­na­tor isn’t buy­ing it.

“Up un­til my bill those guys were do­ing noth­ing,” Moor­lach said Wed­nes­day. “I think you got some false in­for­ma­tion.”

He said his bill would’ve sped up what had be­come a cum­ber­some process and given lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties more of a voice by clar­i­fy­ing how fire risk is de­fined.

Had the gover­nor signed his bill into law, he added, “I think it would have changed things. … I think it would’ve given Cal Fire a whole dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties.”

Brown’s sis­ter Kath­leen, he pointed out, served on the board of the en­ergy ser­vices hold­ing com­pany, Sem­pra. Power and util­ity com­pa­nies, Moor­lach said, “didn’t want to spend the money” mak­ing things safer by mov­ing lines un­der­ground.

That’s “so out­ra­geous it doesn’t merit a re­sponse,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the gover­nor’s of­fice, said of the no­tion that the gover­nor didn’t sign the bill to some­how help out Sem­pra. “It’s un­for­tu­nate this par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual is try­ing to score po­lit­i­cal points by ped­dling in­ac­cu­rate, self-serv­ing claims at a time like this.”

CPUC spokes­woman Terrie Pros­per, how­ever, said the years­long CPUC and Cal Fire ef­fort has al­ready reached key goals.

Phase One was com­pleted in 2015 and Phase Two is nearly done as well, which will im­ple­ment new fire safety reg­u­la­tions in high pri­or­ity ar­eas of the state.

PG&E has paid mil­lions of dol­lars in fines and set­tle­ments over the years for its fail­ure to prop­erly main­tain veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance around its elec­tri­cal lines when it led to mas­sive fires.

In April, the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion fined PG&E $8.3 mil­lion for fail­ing to main­tain a power line that sparked the Butte fire in Amador County in Septem­ber 2015.

In the months be­fore this week’s deadly con­fla­gra­tions, PG&E has been ac­tive in Sonoma County.

Just last month, re­spond­ing to what it called Cal­i­for­nia’s “tree mor­tal­ity cri­sis” caused by the five-year drought, PG&E be­gan fly­ing he­li­copters over Sonoma County to iden­tify dead trees “that could pose a wild­fire or other pub­lic safety risk,” ac­cord­ing to a Sept. 20 news re­lease by the util­ity.

The util­ity said in that state­ment that it pa­trols and in­spects its over­head lines an­nu­ally. Since the drought and spike in tree deaths, the en­ergy com­pany said it’s now in­spect­ing trees twice a year. Last year, PG&E con­ducted sec­ondary checks on 68,000 miles of elec­tri­cal lines. Al­most 11,000 of those in­spec­tions are done by he­li­copter, the util­ity said.

The Septem­ber he­li­copter in­spec­tions flew di­rectly over Santa Rosa and other heav­ily im­pacted fire zones, ac­cord­ing to the re­lease.

In March, PG&E launched a pro­gram to in­spect Sonoma County’s 90,000 wooden power poles. It was ex­pected to last through early next year, ac­cord­ing to a March 13 news re­lease. The util­ity started along High­way 101 in Santa Rosa, in the heart of what would be torched months later.

NHAT V. MEYER — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Res­i­dents walk by top­pled fire poles along Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa.

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