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Gerald Doane: Attacking the real wildfire-utility problem

Other Voices
Gerald Doane

It is time for the public to get involved and get serious about wildfire prevention as it relates to utility services.

It will be expensive and there will be trade-offs, but to do nothing about substantive wildfire prevention and to continually engage in stop gap measures like Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) will cost more economically and the public will justifiably lose confidence in wildfire prevention, government and utility services.

We’ve heard solutions proffered such as the state taking over PG&E or local communities forming utility co-ops. I am certain these proposals are well intentioned, but neither would solve the long-term wildfire problem related to utility services. If the state or a local co-op took over PG&E services tomorrow, nothing would change with respect to wildfire prevention as it relates to those services.

If I were asked to solve the wildfire-utility problem, my answer would be as follows: I would first determine what is creating the wildfire risk as it relates to utility services. Then I would determine viable options and organize those options into short-term and long-term programs. Third, I would suggest wildfire-utility programs be managed by leadership with authority. Lastly, I would suggest implementing performance controls to ensure programs are being carried out as established.

All utility lines, circuits and equipment, including both voltage and signal (telephone, cable, etc.), all “equipment,” can represent a wildfire risk when they are overhead rather than underground.

Why signal? Because if signal equipment is attached to the same structure as voltage equipment, vegetation which impacts signal can impact voltage too.

Overhead “equipment” are a fire risk because of vegetation, such as trees and limbs, being near “equipment.” If the vegetation contacts or damages “equipment” it can ignite nearby fuel.

High winds exacerbate because those winds can move vegetation into “equipment.” Low humidity and high temperatures exacerbate as these atmospheric conditions dry out fuel, making it easier to ignite and burn more intensely.

The real issue, as it relates to wildfires and a utility provider, is vegetation being too close to overhead “equipment.”

Then how do we reduce the risk of wildfires as it relates to utility services? The answer seems simple, bury the “equipment” or clear away vegetation. San Francisco did this some time ago, probably because of the earthquake and fire that ravaged the city in 1906. If I look at “equipment” in San Francisco I will find it buried or if overhead, free from vegetation which could impact “equipment” even with high winds, low humidity and high temperatures. San Francisco’s utility system is mostly wildfire resistant.

In other California communities, the issue becomes more complicated because of economic and environmental concerns. Burying “equipment” is very costly, especially where long distances are involved, and unnecessary in certain locations and circumstances. Clearing away vegetation so that it does not impact “equipment” can be expensive too, depending on the location and circumstances, and can be environmentally repugnant.

Economic and environmental issues are where trade-offs must occur. Remember, wildfire prevention IS environmental protection; economic protection; property loss protection; livelihood protection; pollution prevention; and human life protection. Just ask Paradise, California.

The two viable solutions, therefore, are clearing away vegetation or undergrounding “equipment.” Because of the tremendous costs, undergrounding “equipment” must be a long-term goal. Clearing away vegetation becomes a short-term goal.

These goals must be transformed into programs, a short-term vegetation clearing program and a long-term utility undergrounding program. We now have two programs and we need to decide who implements them.

The long-term program of undergrounding must be implemented by utility services. Why? Because the “equipment” is owned by the utility. It is their property. Funding for the long-term program can come from many (including federal, state, and utility sources) but burying “equipment” in the ground is a utility responsibility.

The short-term program to clear away vegetation from “equipment” must have a new set of clearance standards that reflect true wildfire prevention and not be based solely on cost of clearance and environmental repugnance. These clearance standards must be acted upon by owners of the property on which the vegetation is located. In most instances this will be the state or its subdivisions such as counties, cities and towns who own right-of-way. But private property owners will be responsible if vegetation on their property violates standards.

And finally, who enforces these clearance standards? Because it is wildfire prevention, the fire services (fire marshals) of the various jurisdictions must enforce these regulations.

Gerald G. Doane lives in Grass Valley.


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