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Questions Surround PUC Map Aimed at Preventing Power Line Fires

An area in Calaveras County that was ravaged by the Butte Fire last fall had been designated low risk on a map used by state officials to gauge fire danger.

A county supervisor is now seeking to change that.

"It tore apart our community," Supervisor Cliff Edson said about the blaze that killed two people, destroyed 900 structures and left 70,000 acres in ruins. "It also brought together our community at the same time because we all worked together to help the victims.”

The billion-dollar fire, which was blamed on a drought-stressed tree hitting a power pole, is the seventh worst in state history. With such devastation, Edson wants to know why the mountain community was not included among the high-risk areas.

State Sen. Jerry Hill agrees it's a problem that needs resolving, and he is urging the state Public Utilities Commission to do more to make sure utilities clear trees near power lines. Hill said it took regulators nine years to finalize a flawed fire risk map.

"Evidently, this was modeling," Hill said. "You put garbage in, you get garbage out. Something was wrong in terms of the equations that they used in putting this together."

PUC officials said in a statement that the map is just the first step in laying out a strategy to ease fire risk posed by power lines. They said key variables include winds, dry weather and vegetation density.

And though the Butte Fire area did not meet the criteria for high risk, Edson hopes regulators will reconsider.

"We still have a lot of area in our county that can burn," Edson said. "We’d like to minimize that possibility, and I think these maps will help us do that.”

The five-member state PUC is expected to vote on the current version of the map next week.

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