With the support from Governor Newsom and the Legislature, the CPUC this month (5/30/2019) approved allowing utilities to cut off electricity to possibly hundreds of thousands of customers to avoid catastrophic wildfires like the one sparked by power lines last year that killed 85 people and largely destroyed the city of Paradise.
Because the utilities’ liability can reach billions of dollars, and after several years of devastating wildfires, they asked regulators to allow them to de-energize powerlines when fire risk is extremely high. That’s mainly during periods of excessive winds and low humidity when vegetation is dried out and can easily ignite.
While the CPUC approved de-energization with a unanimous vote, the Commission told the utilities that they must do a better job educating and notifying the public, particularly those with disabilities and others who are vulnerable, and ramp up preventive efforts, such as clearing brush and installing fire-resistant poles.
The precautionary outages could mean multiday blackouts for cities as large as San Francisco and San Jose, PG&E warned in a recent filing with the Commission. PG&E initially planned to de-energize power lines in at-risk rural areas but has since expanded its plans to include high-voltage transmission lines.
Governor Newsom asked the Legislature to approve a State Budget expenditure of $75 million to help communities prepare saying “We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week. This is high winds, severe weather, turn-off the electricity so it doesn’t ignite a fire. It’s a good thing — unless you’re impacted.”
The Legislature is required to approve the State spending plan by June 15 and the Governor must sign it by July 1.
Governor Newsom Defends State’s Wildfire Efforts – Governor Newsom defended California’s wildfire prevention efforts this week (7/31) while criticizing the federal government for not doing enough to help protect the State as it enters the height of fire season after two disastrous years.
His jab at President Trump, who has repeatedly criticized California’s Democratic leaders for poor forest management, comes a day after Newsom signed a law requiring Trump and other presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the state’s primary ballot.
Newsom said 33 of 35 high-priority forest-thinning projects are on pace to be completed on schedule by year’s end after he eased environmental laws to speed permits. They are designed to slow the spread of devastating wildfires near more than 200 communities in fire-prone areas by removing brush and smaller trees.
Unfortunately, just two of the 35 projects are substantially complete as California enters what CalFire Chief Thom Porter warned could be another damaging fire season that has been slowed by last winter’s heavy, lingering snow at higher elevations. Three more projects are at least half done, while the report says two-thirds are less than 20% completed, though some of the status updates are more than a month old.
Officials said the bulk of the delays are in getting permits and permission from private landowners. Newsom said one project has required 719 permits despite his effort to cut through the red tape, while another has been slowed by illegal marijuana farms in the area where work is to be done.
Newsom spoke after touring a project near Colfax in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento that officials said is about 30% complete. The State’s project butts up against federal land, however, and Newsom said there’s nothing happening on the other side of that line.
“We need a more robust commitment. We need more support.”
Newsom also said he did not regard the State’s new tax return disclosure law as “a swipe” at Trump, calling it a “transparency requirement” that also will apply to gubernatorial candidates. He noted his own tax returns will show his family has several acres of property that belonged to his late father in the Colfax area that will benefit from the wildfire safety project.
Newsom also announced the State will hire nearly 400 additional seasonal firefighters this year. Most of the new firefighters will be used to add a fourth crew member on CalFire engines, while two-dozen will supervise firefighting crews made up of members of the California National Guard.