California Wildfires Ignite Probes, Stricter Rules on Utility Companies

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California wildfire
Credits: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP

Northern California mourned the deaths of dozens of people and endured the devastation caused by multiple wildfires in October. Just several weeks after firefighters contained those deadly blazes, they are again battling multiple wildfires—this time in Southern California.

On December 4, the so called Thomas Fire began north of Santa Paula. It quickly spread in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.  The Thomas Fire is the largest among a number of blazes currently torching Southern California. The massive fire already tuned into ashes 270,000 acres, and it is expected to continue burning through January.

According to the California Department of Forestry, the Thomas Fire is now the third most destructive. It already burnt more than 1,000 structures. As of Sunday night, the fire was only 45% contained and thousands of people remained under evacuation.

These multiple wildfires prompted the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to implement new regulations on utility companies. In addition, the regulator, Cal Fire, and other fire agencies launched an investigation into the causes of the blazes.

Cal Fire, CPUC investigating the causes of recent wildfires

Last week, Southern California Edison (SCE) disclosed that authorities are investigating whether its equipment started the Thomas Fire. SCE said, “The investigations now include locations beyond those identified last week as the apparent origin of these fires. SCE believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities.”

Additionally, the utility company said it is cooperation with the investigations, which may take significant amount of time to complete.

Cal Fire is also investigating PG&E in connection with the multiple wildfires in Northern California that led to 43 deaths.

New fire-safety regulation

On December 14, the CPUC implemented tougher regulation for utility companies to improve fire safety in high fire-threat areas. CPUC’s Board unanimously approved the new fire safety regulations.

CPUC President Michael Picker said the new regulation is “a major rewrite” of the state’s fire-prevention rules for utility companies. According to him, climate change increases the risks of wildfires in California.

In addition, Picker said, state officials “accept and acknowledge that the scope of the problem is changing.” They noted the fire season in California seems to be happening year-round.

Under the new fire-safety regulation, energy utility companies are required to do the following:

  • increase clearances between power lines and vegetation
  • perform annual patrol inspections of overhead distribution facilities
  • prepare fire prevention plans
  • take other steps to mitigate fires in high-risk zones

The regulation also established a High Fire-Threat District map. Picker said, “The map includes a broader definition of fire threat and also shows how dramatically climate impacts are increasing fire risks…”

California wildfires could be the new normal due to climate change

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown warned Californians that wildfires could be the new normal in the state due to climate change. He said, “This could be something that happens every year or every few years. We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.” He added, “With climate change, some scientists are saying that Southern California is literally burning up.”

According to Gov. Brown, California needs resources to prevent the wildfires and invest in managing vegetation and forests. The state’s congressional delegation is seeking additional $4.4 billion in wildfire relief funds.

The U.S. Forest Service recently estimated that the number of dead trees in California reached 129 million. Dead trees raise fire risks.

In a recent statement, PG&E said it is committed to spending significant resources to removing dead trees throughout its service areas.

“PG&E supports this as a good, next step, and we know there is more to do,” the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said in a statement. The utility company also supports the new fire-safety regulations. PG&E described it as “good, next step” and acknowledged the fact that “there is more to do.”