Pasadena at Risk of Fires from Downed Overhead Power Lines

PWP to talk downed utility lines, wildfires before City Committee

Published : Tuesday, June 11, 2019 | 5:28 AM

Downed utility lines create fire threats to California communities even in urban areas and Pasadena is no exception.

That appears to be one message Pasadena Water and Power officials today will tell the Council’s Municipal Services Committee when they present data regarding the city’s vulnerability to such events which, if not overwhelming, still exists.

The City utility will reveal at the June 11 meeting that 6.4 percent of Pasadena is exposed to “extreme” fire threat from downed utility lines. “High” fire threat, one tick below “extreme” on the hazard scale, applies to 13.1 percent of the city’s total area.

There are approximately 4,390 feet of primary overhead wire in the extreme fire threat area, representing .45 percent of the total overhead system. In the high fire threat area there are about 92,512 feet of primary overhead wire in the high threat area, which is about 9.86 percent of the total overhead system.

Pasadena, itself designated a high-risk fire hazard area, is surrounded by areas of elevated risk (orange) and extreme risk (pink)

In its presentation, PWP noted that the 2018 wildfire season was, “the deadliest on record in California.” There were 8,527 fires that torched 1,893,913 acres. Their names are now etched in California disaster lore: Carr, Mendocino, Camp, and Woolsey.

The material damage only tells a part of the story. The fate of utilities tagged as a wildfire’s source due to a downed power line, tells another.

Pacific Gas & Electric’s liability for wildfires is projected in the $30 billion-worth of legal claims that forced it into a bankruptcy filing. Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) denied $379 million in cost recovery to San Diego Gas & Electric for the wildfires in 2007, that decimated east San Diego County.

PWP noted that the legal doctrine of “inverse condemnation” is at the root of utilities’ wildfire woes. It says a private party is entitled to compensation from a public entity if its property is damaged for public use.

In such cases, “strict liability” applies, said PWP, and that, the utility said, means “public utilities must pay all damage costs if utility equipment caused or contributed to a fire, whether the utility was negligent or not.”

In its 2019 “State Legislative Platform,” approved by the City Council, Pasadena government said it “believes that the inverse condemnation law and strict liability should not be applied if its locally owned utility adheres to current safety and operation standards.”

To mitigate, PWP is applying such measures as vegetation management, using insulated tree wire for new installs, de-energizing compromised power lines, along with other dictates of the “Power Line Fire Prevention Manual.”

The preliminary cost estimate for these measures is $9.5 million over the next five years.

From the update we now know that water service areas can provision Pasadena for two days without power.

After that, lift pumping to higher elevations in the system would be impacted, “especially during firefighting operations.” Higher elevations are typically urban-wildlands interface zones and more prone to infernos.

PWP is updating its current fire mitigation plan to correspond with changes driven by new CPUC regulations, a job it projects will be done by Jan. 2020.

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