By Levin Simes
January 30, 2018

Electrical Power 3rd Most Common Cause of CA Wildfire

2011-2015 CA Wildfire by Cause

Third Most Common Cause of California Wildfire: Electrical Power

The California State Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communication held a Wildfire Safety Hearing on January 26th 2018.  The hearing focused on the 1.2 million acres and thousands of buildings damaged in the 2017 California wildfires. The Thomas fire of Southern California was the largest in acres at 280,000, but in Northern California the Tubbs fire was California’s most destructive with 5,600 structures burned. The Tubbs, Redwood Valley, Atlas and Cascade fires combined to claim 41 lives.

Human caused ignitions start most wildfires. Electrical power lines constitute a significant minority of these fires, the 3rd most common cause behind equipment use and the burning of debris. Power line fires are estimated to occurs hundreds of times each year, and are being actively investigated as the cause of the Tubbs, Redwood Valley, Atlas and Cascade Northern California wildfires.

The committee had these findings:

  • The impact of recent Legislative oversight into California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decision making has resulted in shifts to the assessment of utility risk and the funding of mitigation strategies.
  • CPUC analysis of utility risk management strategies is still in its infancy, providing little insight into the current framework’s successes or failings.
  • The effects of high wind speed and extreme weather events should lead regulators and utilities to implement best practices to reduce the likelihood of future fires.
  • “Best practices” can take multiple forms. Effective regulation often contains a mix of regulatory design types, rather than a single approach.
  • The establishment of robust electric safety culture, both at utilities and the CPUC, is crucial for ensuring safety performance, especially in high-hazard situations.
  • The very real risks posed by utility infrastructure in drought-ridden landscapes lend extreme urgency to the CPUC’s task.

The committee drew from experiences and lessons learned not just within the US, but abroad in places such as Australia. Australia suffered their own catastrophic fires in the past, including the “Black Saturday” fire of 2009, and had to learn to adapt to prevent remove wildfires from claiming lives and property. They discovered that while wildfires were not usually started by electrical infrastructure, those fires were disproportionately damaging and dangerous:

“…on days of extreme fire danger the percentage of fires linked to electrical assets rises dramatically. Thus, electricity-caused fires are most likely to occur when the risk of a fire getting out of control and having deadly consequences is greatest.”

The committee noted how the CPUC in response to 2017 wildfires drew up new measures to add vegetation management and more frequent inspections of power lines. Also adopted was a new fire map that added land under high fire threat.  Best practices for high threat areas include:

  • Vegetation management
  • Power line inspections
  • Manual or automated (i.e. LIDAR)
  • Weather station monitoring
  • Pole replacement Wood-to-steel or accelerated replacement programs
  • Disabling equipment that automatically energizes a line after a fault is tripped (i.e. reclosers)
  • Proactive line de-energization
  • Replacing copper conductors
  • Dead tree removal
  • Remote control and data analytics of power lines (i.e. SCADA or line telemetry)
  • Animal abatement

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