Home | News Room | News Blog

CPUC News Blog

Director Blog: Identifying New and Innovative Approaches to Mitigating Wildfires

 Permanent link   All Posts

Below is a blog from Elizaveta Malashenko, the Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division.

The 2017 California wildfire season was the most destructive one on record, with more than 9,000 fires burning more than 1.2 million acres and the occurrence of five of the 20 most destructive wildland-urban interface fires in the state's history according to statistics from CAL FIRE. This presents the CPUC with the urgency and an opportunity to take a new and expanded look at wildfire prevention policies. On January 31, 2018, we held a Fire Safety and Utility Infrastructure En Banc to examine fire threat in California and to consider actions that can be taken to further mitigate risk of wildfires as related to electric infrastructure. While the En Banc spurred a great discussion, it's just a beginning of a dialogue that will unfold this year. My personal top priority for 2018 is to identify best practices and to promote policies pertaining to utility wildfire mitigation, with a heightened focus on identifying innovative approaches and creative policy paradigms.

California state agencies, counties, U.S. Forest Service, and many stakeholders collectively work to understand and address threats to 33 million acres of forests state-wide. These efforts focus on identifying the highest fire threat areas and introducing management practices into those forests to render them more resilient to fire and more inclusive of the multiple benefits forests provide, such as water retention, erosion control, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. With a specific focus on prevention of ignition of wildfires from utility infrastructure, the CPUC has adopted some of the most stringent regulations in the U.S., including strict vegetation clearance requirements for the electric distribution system. These statewide efforts create a great foundation for further innovation and cross-disciplinary partnerships.

Electric infrastructure is identified as one of the top sources of ignition of major wildfires, with several of the most destructive fires in California's history involving electric power facilities, particularly distribution lines. To understand this issue further, the CPUC has been collecting data on all instances of fire ignitions from electric infrastructure operated by the three major investor-owned utilities in California since 2014. More than 13,000 ignitions have been reported to the CPUC to date, most of them resulting in minor fires of less than a quarter acre. The incident data collected helps shed light on direct causes of fire incidents.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 1

The leading cause of fires ignited by utility infrastructure is a contact between electric equipment and an object, without equipment failure as a contributing factor. More than 50 percent of those incidents are due to vegetation (as opposed to vehicles, animals, balloons, etc.).

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 2

The second most common cause is "equipment/facilities failure", with more than half of those incidents involving wire and splice failure.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 3

This data provides a good starting point for where to focus mitigation efforts. An additional factor that's not highlighted by this data is the importance of weather conditions, particularly humidity and wind. Wind especially tends to be key when looking at major wildfires where utility infrastructure was involved. This makes logical sense, since high winds result in tree branches breaking off and in trees failing, and as the wind carries this vegetation it can encounter electric infrastructure and ignite. High wind conditions also result in rapid fire spread, so the conditions that elevate the risk of utility infrastructure igniting fires are also the same conditions that elevate risk of wildfires in general.

Wildfires need three things to develop - fuel (vegetation), heat (ignition source), and air (weather). Electric utility infrastructure can be a source of ignition, vegetation serves as the fuel and weather creates conditions for wildfires to spread. To align with wildfire catalysts and reduce the potential and destructiveness of future wildfires, my proposed approach is to consider policy actions in three broad categories following the fire triangle model - fuel management, ignition control, and weather preparedness policies.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 4

One way that I look at it, the fire incident data can inform priorities and the fire triangle framework can provide a structure for ideation and policy development. But this is just a foundation, as ultimately we need a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach. California has already implemented the most aggressive regulations for utility wildfire prevention in the U.S. and at this point there aren't obvious low-hanging fruit in terms of additional regulations that need to be adopted. It's going to take paradigm shifts and new ways of thinking about the issues in order for us to make significant progress in this area. While the challenge that we face is a great one, I believe we also have the capabilities to address it.

As the next step, I will be working to identify best practices and policy proposals for each of the three categories. As part of this effort, I plan to engage with experts and stakeholders across all disciplines and create opportunities for dialogue. Many individuals have already reached out to share their ideas and proposals, and I encourage anyone who wants to engage in this effort to reach out to me directly (eim@cpuc.ca.gov). I will keep everyone posted on the effort through this blog, social media, the CPUC's website, and various other means.

Thank you to everyone who shared their expertise at the En Banc and with me directly. I look forward to continue the dialogue on this vitally important issue.  

Elizaveta Malashenko was named Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division in February 2015.

Read our most recent blog postings in the sidebar at right.

Immigration Guide