In the wake of several major wildfires caused by downed power poles in 2007, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) last week approved a long list of new rules aimed at reducing the risk of future catastrophes.
The most significant rule revisions adopted by the CPUC last week include increasing the weight that utility poles are required to support, retaining records for the life of the pole, collecting fire incident data and changing the standards used by engineers to determine whether poles can support added telecommunications cables without reinforcement or replacement.
In addition, new rules require the incorporation of modern standards in design construction and the use of state-developed maps that depict high fire-threat districts.
Investigation into new safety standards came after a disastrous year for wildfires, many caused by downed power poles.
The 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire, which burned more than 4,521 acres and destroyed 14 structures, was caused by three utility poles that fell over during fierce Santa Ana winds. The pole primarily responsible for the fire was 50 years old and overloaded with communications and electrical lines.
The owners of those poles, including Southern California Edison (SCE) and four cellphone companies, eventually paid a total of $63.5 million in settlement agreements to the CPUC to resolve all issues related to the fire.
“A recent independent safety study of SCE’s poles found that 50 percent in high wind areas are overburdened or decrepit,” said local activist Hans Laetz. “System-wide, Edison has a 22 percent flunk rate.”
Malibu wasn’t the only community with extensive fire damage caused by downed power lines in 2007—San Diego Gas & Electric power lines started three major fires and the utility paid $686 million to insurance companies for the Witch (197,990 acres), Guejito and Rice Canyon (9,472 acres) fires.
Laetz spent three years on the CPUC’s technical advisory panel, where he proposed a number of rules that he believed would increase fire safety. He was the only individual citizen on a panel of 43 engineers and lawyers from electric utilities, telecommunications companies, cable providers, consumer groups, fire agencies and consultants.
Some of the meetings were contentious.
“We went back and forth,” Laetz said. “The cell companies and [telecommunications companies] wanted to use this exercise to weaken existing rules in some areas.”
One of the changes is that poles must now be designed to withstand wind speeds of 112 mph in certain areas instead of 92 mph, according to Laetz.
“The cell companies wanted to cut it to 56 MPH. That is a big deal,” he said. “Some experts said localized wind gusts in excess of 92 mph are what caused the Malibu Canyon Fire of 2007.”
A spokesperson for Southern California Edison told The Malibu Times the company “cannot comment at this time” regarding the new power pole rules because “the topic is still subject to further commission action.”
A representative for the CPUC told The Malibu Times that the commission’s goal was to improve public safety by reducing fire hazards “in response to the widespread devastation caused by wildfires in 2007.”
Although Laetz didn’t get every rule he proposed, he won several major victories.
“The commission agreed with the gist of my proposed rule that crooked or leaning power poles should be prohibited. They put California utilities on notice: No leaning poles will be tolerated. Period. That was my original proposal, and the commission is going beyond what I hoped for.”
The commission also agreed with Laetz’s proposal to require companies to keep records of what they install on poles, and the engineering calculations that support it, forever. “The utilities wanted to be able to throw out or ‘lose’ engineering data after only 10 years,” he said.