New reporting by NPR’s California Newsroom has revealed just how dangerous PG&E’s power lines are heading into this year’s wildfire season. The investigation also spotlights just how vulnerable the Santa Cruz Mountains are. KAZU’s Michelle Loxton reports.
Michelle Loxton (ML): Epic wildfires across California in recent years have highlighted the urgency of preparation, and spotlighted vast vulnerabilities. Those are the key findings from new investigative reporting by NPR's California Newsroom, which looked into how dangerous PG&E’s power lines are heading into wildfire season. Aaron Glantz is the senior investigations editor for NPR's California Newsroom and one of the reporters involved in this new investigation.
I spoke to him earlier this week, when the story was published. I started off by asking for a bit of a history lesson about why we should be so concerned about PG&E’s power lines?
Aaron Glantz (AG): Well, we're heading into one of the hottest, driest years on record, and we know that in recent years Pacific Gas and Electric Company has sparked some of the state's deadliest wildfires. This is a company that pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after the Camp Fire up in Paradise. It faces felony charges in connection with the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. And so what we wanted to do was go to PG&E, go to the California Public Utilities Commission that regulates it and ask them what is the state of your lines heading into wildfire season and then put that together and share it with your audience and other audiences throughout the state.
ML: And that is exactly what Glantz and NPR's California Newsroom did. They created a map (pictured below) that shows the communities at greatest risk. Glantz says the Santa Cruz Mountains and Big Sur are very vulnerable.
At-Risk Power Lines in Vulnerable Fire Zones
Map sources: California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E Credit: Chris Hagan, Lisa Pickoff-While, George LeVines
AG: What we've done is we have taken the areas of greatest concern, those areas which the state says are extremely risky for fire this year, they're colored red on this map. And then you're going to be looking at basically the whole Santa Cruz Mountains and part of the coast near Big Sur, extreme fire risk this year, according to the state. And then, also, elevated fire risk will be in yellow on this map. That's, frankly, most of the rest of the state.
ML: On top of those “red” and “yellow” areas Glantz and his team mapped out where Pacific Gas and Electric’s most risky electric circuits are — essentially the power lines the California Public Utilities Commission and PG&E are most concerned could start a fire again this year.
AG: You can see that the entire Santa Cruz mountains are at extreme fire risk this year. And then if you look at this same map, you can see wires on the map that are in the Boulder Creek area inching up from that Silicon Valley side up into the mountains and down a little bit towards Santa Cruz and by Boulder Creek. And this is one of the riskiest electric circuits in the entire state, according to PG&E and the PUC, in terms of causing potentially another wildfire this year. This is a section of line that PG&E has promised in a corrective action plan to go out and look at and clear branches away from power lines.
ML: So PG&E have promised corrective action. I asked Glantz what that is supposed to look like.
AG: PG&E is supposed to be clearing around poles; here's supposed to be a 10 foot radius with no brush around any electric pole, and then there’s supposed to be no branches eight feet off the ground. Obviously, if there is some kind of brushfire, we wouldn't want the utility pole to catch fire, burn, and fall down and make the fire spread even faster. They are also supposed to clear any tree branches or limbs or anything four feet from the electric wires themselves.
ML: I asked Glantz about PG&E’s response to this reporting.
AG: You know, we had a very interesting discussion with PG&E after we reported to them what we found up in the North Bay. Our reporter from KRCB in Santa Rosa drove around a lot of western Sonoma County, taking pictures of redwood trees and oak trees that appeared to be violating state law by being overly close to power lines both up at the wires and then also at the base of the pole. PG&E sent somebody out. They told us that there was no problem, that we were wrong, that these lines were indeed compliant with the law. But at the same time, they said, well, as long as we were there, we trimmed back the redwood tree, we trimmed some branches off the oak trees. And so the long and the short of it is if you live in western Sonoma County, your risk of wildfire now is just a little bit less than it was before we called PG&E and they went out there.
Glantz and his team want to keep making those calls to PG&E. If you spot vulnerable power lines in your community email any photos you take with your location to email@example.com.
Note: If you smell natural gas, see any downed power lines, or suspect another emergency situation, leave the area immediately and call 911. Then call PG&E at 1-800-743-5000.
Aaron Glantz is the Senior Investigations Editor for NPR's California Newsroom.
He joined Michelle Loxton to share his team’s reporting on just how dangerous PG&E’s power lines are heading into wildfire season.