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Laguna hopes bill aimed at reducing wildfires sparked by utility wires will encourage undergrounding

A bill spearheaded by Laguna Beach Councilman Bob Whalen that would require the state to identify areas most at-risk of wildfires caused by overhead utility wires passed the Senate last week and awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision.

Senate Bill 1463 would also require the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to identify steps that cities must take to prevent fires from overhead electrical equipment, according to the bill.

City officials hope SB 1463 is a move toward ultimately getting the utility companies to share the cost of undergrounding wires.

Downed power lines in Laguna have caused at least four fires in the last 10 years, including a 15-acre brush fire in July 2015 in Laguna Canyon, a city news release said.

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Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill.

Laguna Beach should be near the top of the at-risk list, said Whalen, the city’s lead representative in pushing for the legislation, which was authored by state Sen. John Moorlach, whose district includes Laguna Beach.

Whalen said city officials wanted the bill to include an option for cities to foot 20% of undergrounding costs if utility companies would cover the rest. The companies opposed this, so it was dropped from the bill, he said in an interview.

Undeterred, Whalen said he wants to introduce a separate bill in January that would allow for the cost sharing.

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The ultimate goal is “getting utility companies to pay for a substantial portion” of undergrounding costs, he said.

“Requiring utilities to underground poles and wires is long overdue,” he added.

In the news release, Whalen noted the effort behind the bill.

“It was an uphill battle with the electric utilities, the cable TV operators and their lobbyists watching our every move,” Whalen said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted in this bill, but it is an important first step and will strengthen our hand as we do battle at the CPUC to make sure that Laguna Beach is recognized as an area for enhanced measures to prevent fires caused by overhead utilities.”

The bill cleared multiple state Assembly committee hearings — Whalen testified at two — before gaining Senate approval, 39 to 0, on Aug. 25.

Whalen and city staff had met with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric officials about partnering on an undergrounding plan, but City Manager John Pietig said the utilities were reluctant to share costs.

“When it became evident that we weren’t going to get any meaningful assistance from SCE to underground utilities, we decided to go the legislative route for a solution,” Pietig said in a statement.

Aside from undergrounding, fire prevention steps could include strengthening the overhead electrical wires, increasing the distance between the poles and the nearest vegetation and switching from wood to steel poles, Laguna Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse said.

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LaTendresse twice met with legislators in Sacramento.

Whalen’s council colleagues recognized his contribution during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“This bill would not have made it out of the Legislature if not for you,” Councilman Robert Zur Schmiede said at the meeting, referring to Whalen.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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