California Agency Took Nine Years to Create Fire Map

Gov. Brown vetoed a measure that tried to get the agency ‘off the dime’

California Gov. Jerry Brown / Getty Images
California Gov. Jerry Brown / Getty Images
November 23, 2018

The California state agency charged with overseeing utility companies took nine years to develop a consistent statewide map designating areas at high risk for destructive power-line fires.

Seven of those years took place during outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown's time in office and six were during the tenure of a president of a key state agency who resigned after a series of leadership scandals.

Longtime critics of the utility companies and their role in sparking some of the state's worst wildfires are voicing new concerns after reports that PG&E's transmission line malfunctioned minutes before the start of the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive fire in the state's history.

Others are calling for the creation of a new independent body to oversee the utilities, complaining that the companies and their legions of lobbyists have too much sway over the existing California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC.

"We were the only city in the state to participate in the fire-mapping process. It's a very slow-moving and bureaucratic and byzantine process dominated by the utility companies," Bob Whalen, a city council member from the fire-prone Southern California city of Laguna Beach, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The rule-making process was largely controlled by utility-related representatives, he said.

"Any suggestion we made was typically voted down 31 to 1," he said.

"To me, what would really take the fire mitigation analysis to a higher level is if you have an independent body of experts involved," he added. "The utilities are so familiar with the process and so involved in the day to day of it, they really dominate the proceedings."

The CPUC is the state government agency charged with protecting consumers safeguarding the environment and assuring "Californians' access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure and services," according to its website.

"What [the CPUC] hasn't done a good job at is requiring the utilities to follow good safety practices," said Chico attorney Ken Roye, a resident of fire-ravaged Butte County who has litigated eight fire-related cases. "They're all in bed together. The [CPUC] hasn't done anything to alleviate the problem, and it's been going on for over 30 years."

"All eight [cases] that I've litigated have all involved vegetation-management issues—every single one," he said. 

A CalMatters report on Monday said the state's "increasingly dire blazes have brought a reckoning over the role of power equipment in starting wildfires." Fireproofing the equipment won't be cheap—and "customers may pay," the report warned.

Brown appointed two of his top aides to serve on the commission in 2016 to help reform it and make it more transparent following a large gas leak in Southern California and the resignation of its former leader after revelations of back-channel dealings related to a deadly pipeline explosion, as well as PG&E's diversion of money approved for pipeline safety to executive compensation.

In addition, a scathing 2016 audit found lax control over spending, a failure to disclose public records, and board members' travel at the expense of a nonprofit organization with close ties to the utilities it is supposed to oversee.

At the time, Ed Howard, an expert in regulatory and administrative law at the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, said, "I would be shocked if what we've learned so far even gets beyond the tip of the iceberg."

Despite the scandals, that same year Brown vetoed a wildfire-related bill that would have required the CPUC to work with municipalities to ensure that the utility companies were doing all they could to prevent fires in high-risk areas, arguing it was redundant. The measure was aimed at speeding up the map-making process and requiring local officials' input.

State Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican representing Laguna Beach, said his bill was aimed at getting the CPUC "off the dime" when it came to the map-making process, which in some instances served as a precursor to much needed fire-mitigation steps. The Laguna Beach area has experienced four major wildfires in recent years and devastating one in 1993 that consumed 16,000 acres and burned 441 homes.

"I authored a bill in 2016, SB 1463, to address wildfires caused by sparking electrical lines in order to protect my constituents," Moorlach wrote in a blog post Monday. "The constituents who had been dealing with the CPUC and Cal Fire all disagreed that these two agencies were doing their job well or as quickly as they could, thus the reason for [the bill]."

"Governor Brown relied on his bureaucracy. And he's relied on a weak excuse, saying the real issue is climate change," Moorlach continued. "A good manager would not just trust but verify his departments."

The Rural County Representatives of California, the Orange County Fire Chiefs Association, the cities of Malibu, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Aliso Viejo all signed letters in support of the measure in 2016.

Much of the lengthy map-making process took place during the ousted former leader's 12-year tenure.

Asked why the process of producing a consistent state-wide map of high fire-threat areas took nearly nine years, CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper pointed to a section describing the process on the website.

"It was a very involved process led by a group of utility mapping experts, with oversight from a team of independent experts known as the Independent Review Team," she said in an email. "The members of the Independent Review team were selected by the California department of Forestry and Fire Protection [Cal Fire], and the work of the [team] was overseen by Cal Fire."

She added that the development of the fire-threat map includes input from many stakeholders, including investor-owned and publicly owned electric utilities, communications infrastructure providers and local public safety agencies.

The CPUC website information on the mapping process says a series of regulations began in response to a number of devastating wildfires in October 2007 that burned hundreds of square miles in Southern California. The fires were driven by strong Santa Ana winds and were "reportedly ignited by overhead utility power lines and aerial communication facilities in close proximity to power lines."

In 2009, the CPUC revised its rules to ensure that fire-safety regulations apply only to areas referred to as "high fire-threat areas." The areas were identified by interim maps that covered different parts of the state and used different methodologies for identifying the fire-threat areas, "presenting consistency and potential enforcement issues."

To address those issues, the CPUC began to develop a statewide fire-threat map, the website states, before jumping to 2015 when the commission adopted another rulemaking mentioning the decision to develop and adopt a "statewide fire-threat map that delineates the boundaries of the high fire-threat district where the previously adopted regulations will apply" and "determine the need for additional fire-safety regulations" in those areas.

The piece states that the CPUC adopted the final map on January 19, 2018.

A new San Jose Mercury News report also faults the CPUC for lax oversight. The Monday report said a 2012 winter storm toppled five steel towers that support the same PG&E transmission line that malfunctioned minutes before the Camp Fire ignited.

The report cites a July 16, 2013 letter to the CPUC from PG&E stating it planned to replace six consecutive lattice-steel towers with new towers located in the same vicinity of problems suspected to have caused the Camp Fire. The project was scheduled for completion by the end of 2013 but wasn’t finished until 2016.

Frank Pitre, the co-counsel representing more than 600 clients suing PG&E over last year’s North Bay fires, has called for an independent audit of the 2012 incident and the condition of the towers.

"The cause or causes of the five transmission towers that collapsed in 2012 along this line must be thoroughly investigated, to determine if any of the same causes are associated with the malfunction reported before the Camp Fire started," he told the Mercury News. "If so, then the multi-billion-dollar question for PG&E to answer will be: 'What did they do to assure themselves that other towers and equipment along the same line were safe for continued operation during high wind conditions?'"

Published under: California , Jerry Brown