Power company to bury 10,000 miles of lines to reduce wildfire risk
More than 100 fires are blazing throughout the U.S.
In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, the Bootleg Fire burns at night in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The destructive Bootleg Fire, one of the largest in modern Oregon history, has already burned more than 476 square miles (1,210 square kilometers), an area about the size of Los Angeles. The Bootleg Fire is among dozens burning in the parched West. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP)
Officials in the western United States are taking measures to mitigate the risk of sparking further wildfires. More than 2.6 million acres have been scorched by wildfires in the U.S. this year as of July 22, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a mark that's well ahead of the 1.8 million acres burned by this time last year, which was a record-breaking wildfire season.
As of this week, there were more than 170 fires burning across the West, plowing through California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, among others. The smoke and ash from these fires, which are also burning up in Canada, have even made their way to the Northeast.
To mitigate the risk of more fires forming, states' lawmakers and power companies are implementing changes that could reduce the risk of sparking wildfires, including adjusting systems that could encourage fires, working on legislation and diminishing the risk of sparking a blaze at the individual level.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which is headquartered in San Francisco, announced this week that it plans to shift about 10,000 miles of power lines underground in some of the areas most vulnerable to fires.
FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2018, file photo, palm trees frame a home being destroyed by the Woolsey wildfire above Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif. Southern California Edison will remove 11,000 palm trees in its service territory that are too close to power lines and pose a fire risk. Palms are not only a hazard when they are close to lines, but fronds can be carried long distances by the wind and hit electrical wires, the utility said in a recent statement. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
“We want what all of our customers want: a safe and resilient energy system," said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe. "We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop.”
Speaking at a press conference in California on Wednesday, Poppe told reporters a pine tree that fell on a PG&E powerline ignited what is now the Dixie Fire, which as of Thursday had reached megafire status, according to The Los Angeles Times, and had grown to more than 100,000 acres in size. It was only 17% contained, the Times reported.
"You deserve better," Poppe said, adding that the company wasn't planning to reveal the decision to bury power lines until later this year.
Undergrounding the wires significantly reduces the risk of wildfires. The shift underground also reduces the risk of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which are initiated as a last resort during dry, windy conditions to reduce the risk of vegetation reaching power lines and sparking a fire.
PG&E CEO Patti Poppe telling reporters the power company plans to bury 10,000 miles of electrical lines underground.
The shift also means that more of California’s trees will remain untouched, the power company said in a statement.
In the wake of devastating fires in 2017 and 2018, PG&E began to evaluate the possibility of placing overhead power lines underground in the interest of fire safety. From 2018 to 2020, the company performed a number of demonstrations that shifted power lines underground in high fire-threat areas, including Alameda, Nevada and Sonoma counties.
In 2019, PG&E announced it would rebuild the power lines underground in Paradise, a town in Northern California that was decimated by the Camp Fire.
Other states are focusing on mitigating the risk of wildfires at an individual level. Oregon issued a number of restrictions, effective June 4, designed to lessen the risk of sparking a wildfire. The state is currently battling the expansive Bootleg Fire, which covers more than 600 square miles. The combination of drought and record-breaking heat set the stage for devastating fires.
FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, file photo firefighters work to keep flames from spreading through the Shadowbrook apartment complex as a wildfire burns through Paradise, Calif. Authorities say the fire was 95 percent contained on Thursday, Nov. 22. The blaze that started Nov. 8 leveled Paradise, killing multiple people and destroying more than 13,000 homes. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
The restrictions prohibit smoking while traveling, except in designated locations, in vehicles on “improved roads” and in boats on the water. Campfires, cooking fires and warming fires are prohibited during “extreme” fire danger, according to the regulations.
Wildfire restrictions require that those traveling carry several pieces of firefighting equipment: a shovel, a gallon of water and a fire extinguisher for all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles.
The use of power saws is also prohibited during “extreme” fire danger. Cutting, grinding and welding metal is also prohibited, the restrictions read. Fireworks are also prohibited.
Flames burn inside a van as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.
Meanwhile, other areas have concentrated efforts into investment in wildfire safety funds. Colorado Springs may ask voters in November to keep $15 million in tax revenue for wildfire mitigation, according to the local Gazette. The fund could help pay for trees to be thinned and vegetation to be mowed down near homes to slow the growth of fires.
In June, the Oregon House passed a bill to fund nearly $200 million for wildfire response, local station KDRV.com reported.
“After two years of public input and testimony, we are finally funding a comprehensive program to help keep Oregonians safe. On the cusp of another devastating wildfire season, SB 762 cannot wait,” said Rep. Pam Marsh.
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