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Legislators, first responders and utility heads grapple with year-round fire risk in town hall forum

Legislators, first responders and utility heads grapple with year-round fire risk in town hall forum
State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) asks utility officials about the notification process for public safety power shutoffs during a Feb. 21 Wildfire Town Hall forum at Pasadena High School. (Photo by Sara Cardine)

Whether wildfires are the “new normal” in California or an environmental tide that might yet be stemmed through legislation, outreach and prevention, no meaningful solutions will be found without collaboration among state and local leaders and their constituents.

That was the main message of a Wildfire Town Hall Forum Thursday organized by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) — chair of the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee — and attended by utility and emergency response leaders as well as representatives serving the San Gabriel foothills communities.

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About 150 residents turned out in Pasadena High School’s auditorium for an update on recent efforts being made by legislators and state and regional utility providers, such as Southern California Edison, to reduce danger in at-risk communities. State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), among others, participated.

The forum follows Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s announcement last month it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it faces potential liabilities of at least $30 billion from a series of deadly California wildfires that spurred hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of thousands of individual plaintiffs.

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Pedro Pizarro, president and chief executive for Edison International, apprised attendants of Southern California Edison’s plan to roll out a 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Plan with guidelines that exceed requirements set forth by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“We believe that the wildfire mitigation plan, once approved, should provide the foundation for the CPUC to assess whether we have prudently managed our system,” Pizarro said.

The plan calls for $530 million to $680 million in capital operations and maintenance this year alone. Additionally, Edison has installed 150 miles of insulated power lines — more resistant to wind and damage than their traditional counterparts — and has plans to replace another 3,000 miles by 2025.

A chief threat to fire safety, Pizarro said, is vegetation growing near power lines. SCE’s Hazardous Tree Management Program calls for at least 125,000 tree-specific threat assessments that will remove or trim at least 7,500 trees in 2019 — the first year in a program that could take up to eight years to complete.

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Friedman asked whether the state offers financial assistance for low-income residents wishing to remove trees or further fireproof their homes. Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said communities could form fire safety councils that would be eligible for state and federal grants.

Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director for CPUC’s Office of Safety and Enforcement, stressed the need for more tree trimming, citing vegetation as the culprit in about 25% of California wildfires.

“Utilities are going to be much more aggressive about vegetation management this year,” she said.

After taking a series of questions from the audience about evacuating pets, the role of CPUC in the PG&E bankruptcy filing and whether developments in high-risk areas might be prevented or taxed, Holden thanked participants for their contributions.

“We’re all in this together,” he said.

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