For 10 days in October of 2007, wildfires riding hot Santa Ana winds swept across Southern California, forcing nearly 1 million people to flee and killing 10. When the ashes cooled, investigators found that many of the blazes had been caused by electrical lines swaying or falling in the wind.
So state regulators resolved to tighten fire safety rules for electric utilities. They quickly passed new regulations for Southern California and began developing rules for the rest of the state.
It would take 10 years.
On Nov. 8 of this year, exactly a month after the most destructive wildfire event in California history began sweeping across the Wine Country, the California Public Utilities Commission finally released its proposal. It would require utilities to prioritize safety repairs in high fire risk zones, follow new timetables for inspecting equipment in the field and keep tree limbs farther away from many power lines.
The proposal, which could go before the commission's five voting members for approval as soon as December, comes as state investigators try to determine whether power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. may have played a role in sparking last month's catastrophic fires. Those fires charred 210,000 acres, destroyed 8,900 structures and killed at least 43 people.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has not announced a cause for any of the fires, and the investigation could take months. No evidence has surfaced that indicates whether tougher regulations on power lines and utility poles could have prevented them.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, suspects the Wine Country fires prodded the commission to move forward with its proposed rules, so long in the making. "It's a slow process because it's bureaucratic, and perhaps it allows more utility involvement and influence than appropriate," he said.
A PG&E spokesman, in response, said the company fully backs the idea of drafting new fire regulations and has been actively involved in doing so.
"We absolutely agree with and support the goal of this proceeding to further reduce the threat of wildfires while addressing the potential impact of the proposed regulations on our customers," said spokesman Donald Cutler.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, shared Hill's frustration with the slow process.
"The PUC certainly has a lot of authority, but what we've seen is that sometimes the legislature needs to give the PUC a push," he said.
A commission spokesman said the proposed regulations were released "in accordance with a previously established schedule."
Critics see the fires as a major test for the commission.
The 2010 explosion of a PG&E pipeline beneath San Bruno exposed within the agency a culture of close relationships between the regulators and the companies they were supposed to oversee. Several of the agency's leaders, including its longtime president, were ultimately forced out. New laws handed some of the commission's lesser-known responsibilities -- over moving vans, private motor carriers, and commercial air services -- to other agencies, to allow it to focus on its core task of regulating utilities.
The commission's current president, Michael Picker, speaks often about improving the agency's attention to safety. With the commission now conducting its own investigation into the fires -- ordering PG&E and telecommunications companies to preserve any damaged equipment they find in the burn zones -- the reformed agency will face fresh scrutiny.
"We'll be watching very carefully, to make sure they're doing what they claim," said Hill, who authored legislation to reform the commission. "I'm hoping there's a real change in their culture of safety."
By design, the commission's process for creating or changing regulations takes time. It includes input from industry, labor, consumer advocates and technical experts. But the fire regulations were also slowed by how the commission approached the task.
The regulations were to be tied to a new map showing which parts of California were most prone to destructive wildfires. Tougher safety rules would apply in high-risk areas than in low-risk locales.
Assembling the map, however, quickly grew complicated, as experts brought in by Cal Fire delved into wind speeds, temperatures, seasonal patterns, vegetation types and the ways different plants burn under different conditions. It didn't help that an early draft of the map did not mark as "high-risk" a swath of the Sierra foothills that had already suffered a huge and deadly fire.
"It was quite the laborious process," said Elizaveta Malashenko, head of the commission's safety and enforcement division, which worked with Cal Fire on the map. She added, "I don't know of any states that are doing anything similar."
Deadlines to finalize the work kept getting pushed back, even as the administrative law judges shepherding the process expressed concern over the delays. The latest schedule extension -- issued at the request of PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and a Cal Fire official leading an independent review team of experts -- came on Oct. 6, two days before the Wine Country wildfires began.
The latest version of the map, approved by the independent review team, was filed with the commission on Friday. Notably, the map now labels much more of the North Bay as facing an extreme fire threat than did earlier versions. Although participants in the process can suggest further changes, the commission could vote to adopt the map early next year.
As the proposed rules were formulated, energy and telecommunications companies often objected.
One proposal, for example, would have forced utilities to trim tree branches farther back from their power lines in many parts of the state. PG&E objected, arguing that while the proposal would protect against trees growing toward power lines, it would do nothing about "hazard trees" that can topple into lines during high winds.
"It is these hazard trees, many of which stand 50 to 100 feet away from the lines, which represent the greatest risk," the utility argued, according to a commission report from a June workshop on proposed rules.
Despite PG&E's critique, the proposed regulations issued this month do include new tree-trimming requirements.
Under current rules, electric utilities have to ensure a minimum distance between tree branches and power lines, with the distance based on the voltage of the line. For many rural distribution lines, the distance is 4 feet. The proposed rules, however, would increase that distance to 12 feet in areas considered to have a high risk of fire. The commission does not require cable and telephone companies, which also own wires on the same poles as electrical equipment, to keep tree branches even 4 feet away from their equipment, because the voltage on communications lines is so low. Of course, if a tree falls on a lower wire, it could bring down the entire pole.
Other measures in the proposals released this month would establish timetables for electric and telecommunications companies to inspect and repair their field equipment.
Electric utilities, for example, would need to inspect all of their lines in areas of elevated or extreme fire risk every year, although PG&E already does so. Safety-related problems found in high fire risk zones would need to be fixed first, before problems found in lower-risk areas. In places considered to be most at risk from fires, those repairs could take no longer than six months.
Hill said he wished the proposed regulations took a harder look at technology. The commission, he said, may need to impose rules on the use of reclosers, devices that automatically try to restart power lines that switch off, even if those lines are damaged or lying on the ground.
Still, "It's a strong first step," he said. "For years, the commission seemed disinterested in the urgent threat of fires. I think this (the Wine Country fires) pushed it to the top."
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @DavidBakerSF ___
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