PG&E’s top official went to Chico on Wednesday, close to the origin of the Dixie fire, to announce her “moon shot” plan to bury 10,000 miles of distribution lines in an unprecedented effort to guard against future wildfires.
“We will make this safe and we will bury the lines,” said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe, adding she hopes the campaign – patterned after the effort to reach the moon in the 1960s -- will be done within a decade, at a cost of $15 billion or less.
“We cannot put a price on the risk reduction and safety of our system,” Poppe said, while at the same time saying she hopes costs will be kept in check by economies of scale and reinvesting savings from no longer having to manage trees around newly undergrounded lines.
The undergrounding campaign announcement came as Poppe confirmed that the Dixie fire – which has now charred more than 85,000 acres -- was sparked July 13 on a hillside in Plumas county when an apparently healthy 70-foot-tall pine tree fell onto lines of PG&E’s Bucks Creek 1101 circuit some 40 feet away.
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“That tree that fell on our line is one of 8 million trees that are in strike distance to our lines. This is an extraordinary problem,” Poppe said.
Poppe acknowledged that while a stretch of Bucks Creek 1101 circuit had been designated for undergrounding later this year, the hillside origin area of the line was not part of PG&E’s 2021 wildfire mitigation plan.
The wider undergrounding effort, she said, will target the high fire threat areas, covering about a quarter of the 80,000 miles of distribution lines in the company’s system.
She billed the effort as the largest of its kind in the U.S., requiring multi-agency participation and coordination as well as complex engineering around existing water, gas and sewer lines, among other obstacles.
Still, Poppe said, the company expects to capitalize on recent breakthroughs in undergrounding technology made during demonstration projects in high fire threat areas over the last two years.
One such area is around the town of Paradise, which was destroyed in the 2018 Camp fire that left 85 dead. The utility plans to underground about 70 miles of its lines in and around Paradise this year, said Adam Wright, vice president of operations. The goal is to accelerate the pace and underground more than 200 miles locally.
Poppe said she hoped to announce her 10,000-mile goal later this summer, but the trauma of the Dixie fire led her to push to announce the effort now.
“I have thousands of people today, on our system, making our system safer,” Poppe said. “And it will be safer tomorrow. But we are still dissatisfied. You deserve better.”