Wildfire has long been a feature of California’s landscape. In recent decades, the number of fire incidents and acres burned has increased considerably. Land use and resource management policies, together with climate change, have increased the likelihood of wildfires starting and the severity of their consequences. Hotter, drier conditions during summer and a longer dry season have resulted in lower moisture levels in vegetation, making it easier to ignite. The drier fuels also enable fires to spread more rapidly, making them difficult to contain. The more extended dry season also increases the chance that the strong offshore winds in the fall coincide with dry conditions, further increasing wildfire risk.

Recent fires have resulted in a devastating loss of life and billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage. Electric utility infrastructure represents one potential cause of wildfire ignition. Other common sources include debris and yard waste burning, motorized equipment and vehicles, campfires, lightning, arson and playing with fire, and smoking. Historically, utility infrastructure has been responsible for less than 10% of reported wildfires. However, fires attributed to power lines consist of roughly half of the most destructive fires in California history.

The Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety is the primary state agency responsible for reducing the likelihood of utility-involved wildfires. This page presents information on the CPUC’s role in addressing the risk of utility-involved wildfires, including critical areas of current and historical regulatory activity and CPUC-reportable fire incident data.

 

Wildfire Safety Costs

As the primary regulator of investor-owned electric utilities in California, CPUC must approve the rates utilities charge customers for providing power. To ensure that utilities are operating in the public interest, CPUC has established a variety of requirements that utilities must meet to justify the rates the utilities propose to charge. One crucial requirement that CPUC imposes is that utilities must undertake a comprehensive review of the risks associated with running their businesses and their proposed actions to mitigate those risks.

CPUC oversees the development of the risk framework each utility uses as basis for analyzing their risks. That work is part of each utility’s general rate case (GRC), and helps CPUC assess whether utilities are properly directing resources to wildfire and other safety risks. CPUC also reviews the proposed risk mitigation activities and the cost before determining what rates to allow the utility to charge as part of the utility’s and allows utilities to keep track of their safety-related costs in various ways for later CPUC review. After rates are approved, CPUC reviews reports that show what utilities spent their approved funding on to see if it aligns with what the utilities planned. 

Wildfire represents the single most significant risk for all of California’s investor-owned electric utilities. Because wildfire represent such a considerable risk, and wildfires started by utility equipment have had such harmful consequences, the state created a special process, and a separate state agency (Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety) specifically focused on reducing that one risk (see: AB 1054 (Holden, Chapter 29, Statutes of 2019) and AB 111 (Budget Committee, 2019)). The special process focuses on developing and implementing Wildfire Mitigation Plans (described below) that utilities develop and submit to the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety. 

Under this new framework, the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety is responsible for reviewing, approving or denying and overseeing compliance with Wildfire Mitigation Plans, while CPUC evaluates the reasonableness of costs associated with implementation of the Wildfire Mitigation Plans for purposes of cost recovery and has enforcement authority with regard to utilities’ performance of their Wildfire Mitigation Plans and utility-caused wildfire. 

 

 

Wildfire Mitigation Plans (WMPs)

Wildfire Mitigation Plans document the initiatives utilities propose for reducing utility-caused catastrophic wildfire risk. Utilities file their Wildfire Mitigation Plans with the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, which is responsible for reviewing and approving or denying them. Pursuant to Public Utilities Code 8386.3, CPUC’s role is to ratify the action taken by the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety if it approves the Wildfire Mitigation Plan. For more information on the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety’s process, click here.

CPUC also reviews Wildfire Mitigation Plans to inform its review of the reasonableness of the costs associated with the proposed wildfire mitigation activities (see above).

 

Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) 

As documented in their Wildfire Mitigation Plans, utilities undertake a wide range of activities to reduce the risk that their equipment starts a wildfire. One of the tactics utilities use is pro-actively shutting off the power at certain times and in particular locations when weather and fuel conditions increase the risk that equipment failure will lead to a catastrophic fire. This activity is called a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). In 2018, CPUC ruled that state law, under Public Utilities Code Sections 451 and 399.2(a), authorizes electric utilities to shut off electric power to protect public safety.

While PSPS events can reduce wildfire risk, they also leave customers and essential facilities without power, which brings its own risks and hardships. These hardships are particularly acute for vulnerable communities and individuals. Because of the adverse consequences of PSPS events, CPUC requires utilities to use PSPS only as a measure of last resort and established guidelines for its implementation. In accordance with CPUC guidelines, utilities have specialized protocols to identify and communicate with customers potentially or actually affected by PSPS events and offer various forms of support, such as backup generator rebate programs.  CPUC also continuously monitors utilities’ PSPS performance and refines its guidelines for PSPS implementation to reduce the scope, frequency, and duration of outages and eventually eliminate the use of this tool.

More at https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/PSPS/ and Public Safety Power Shutoff PSPS FAQs (ca.gov).

  

Fire Safety Settings for Protective Equipment

Another tool utilities use to reduce the risk of utility equipment igniting a wildfire is adjusting the safety settings on the protective equipment on their power lines. Protective equipment, such as circuit breakers, reclosers, and fuses, are standard components of the grid that help keep workers and the public safe by automatically shutting off the power in a disturbance. During dry conditions in high fire-threat district areas, utilities modify the settings on protection devices to automatically turn off power faster if the system detects a potential problem, such as a foreign object coming into contact with an energized line.

The Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety added a category for documenting this type of activity to their 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan guidelines, which can be found here.

PG&E initiated its version of this type of activity in July 2021. CPUC raised concerns about the frequency and extent of the outages resulting from PG&E’s program. PG&E responded with a description of their program and a “targeted plan to reduce the outage frequency including animal protection installation, additional vegetation clearing, and component asset hardening.”   PG&E’s response can be found here.

More at: PG&E's Heightened Equipment Sensitivity Wildfire Mitigation Program

PG&E estimates that in concert with its safety improvements brought about by other Wildfire Mitigation Plan safety measures, its protective equipment and device settings measures have reduced ignitions. CPUC is further evaluating the efficacy and customer impacts of this approach.

 

Wildfire Investigations and Enforcement

Utilities must report to CPUC any fire involving their equipment that meets specific criteria (e.g., size; reporting criteria can be found here: Emergency Reporting (ca.gov)). The Wildfire Safety Enforcement Branch of CPUC’s Safety Enforcement Division (SED) investigates all wildfires reported to involve investor-owned utility equipment. If SED believes the utility  had violated any applicable rule or standard at the time of ignition, SED undertakes appropriate enforcement action. SED may also undertake investigation and enforcement action based on referrals from the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, and CPUC may act on such matters after investigation.

 

Safety Culture

Both CPUC and the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety oversee Safety Culture Assessments of Electrical Utilities. Senate Bill 901 (Dodd, Chapter 626, Statutes of 2018) requires CPUC to conduct Safety Culture Assessments of investor owned utilities at the expense of their shareholders every five years. The following year, with AB 1054 (Holden, Chapter 79, Statutes of 2019), the Legislature also directed the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety to complete Safety Culture Assessments annually.

CPUC’s ongoing investigation into PG&E’s safety culture can be found here.  Its ongoing investigation into the safety culture of SDG&E and Southern California Gas can be found here.

Information about the rulemaking to standardize CPUC’s Safety Culture Assessment process can be found here. The purpose of this Order Instituting Rulemaking (OIR) is to develop and adopt a safety culture assessment framework and identify the structure, elements, and process necessary to drive each regulated investor-owned electric and natural gas utility and gas storage operator to establish and continuously improve their organization-wide safety culture.

 

Emergency Disaster Relief

With Decision D.19-07-015, the Commission adopted an emergency disaster relief program for electric, natural gas, water, and sewer utility customers. The emergency disaster relief program is designed to ensure that California utility customers who experience a housing or financial crisis due to a disaster keep vital utility services and receive financial support in the wake of a disaster. The emergency disaster relief program shall be implemented upon a Governor of California’s state of emergency declaration or a Presidential State of Emergency declaration when a disaster has either resulted in the loss or disruption of the delivery or receipt of utility service or resulted in the degradation of the quality of utility service. Once initiated by a state for a federal emergency declaration, the customer protections remain for twelve (12) months from the date of the original emergency declaration unless otherwise determined by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Should the utilities wish to extend the protection beyond the default 12-month period we establish here, the utilities may request approval from CPUC to ensure that customers receive the necessary support. The utilities are encouraged to do more to support customers and thus, are not barred from implementing additional assistance programs to augment the protections provided by these rules.

 

Fire Incident Data

CPUC requires utilities to report ignitions involving their equipment that meet certain criteria (e.g., size). Reporting criteria can be found here: Emergency Reporting (ca.gov). All ignitions reported to CPUC in prior years is available below:

 

Fire Maps

In 2018, CPUC adopted a fire threat map to identify areas of heightened fire risk for use by utilities in planning risk reduction activities. Developed in collaboration with CalFire, the Office of Emergency Services, utilities, and stakeholders, this map breaks down the wildfire risk in a utility’s service district into three tiers. Tier 1 areas of the service territory have an acceptable level of wildfire risk, Tier 2 areas have an elevated risk, and Tier 3 areas have an extreme risk. Combined with the map are utility requirements for enhanced mitigations in those areas of utility service territories with higher wildfire risk. For example, SDG&E has prioritized upgrading its transmission assets by targeting the hardening of all transmission assets in Tiers 2 and 3 by 2027.

For more information, see Fire-Threat Maps and Fire-Safety Rulemaking (ca.gov)

 

Wildfire Technology Research and Development

CPUC established the Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) in 2011 to fund research leading to technological advancement and scientific breakthroughs supporting California’s clean energy goals. The program provides ratepayer benefits, including reliability, lower costs, and safety. EPIC investments advance pre-commercial clean energy technologies and approaches for the benefit of electricity ratepayers of California’s three largest electric investor-owned utilities (IOUs): Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E), and Southern California Edison (SCE).

EPIC 4 investment plans include numerous proposed investments to reduce wildfire risk. AB 322 (Salas, 2021) requires The California Energy Commission (CEC) to consider biomass conversion projects in its EPIC investment planning. As part of its consideration, the CEC is required to consider the recommendations of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and to coordinate with the California Natural Resources Agency, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, and the Department of Food and Agriculture. AB 322 also requires the CEC to consider opportunities to reduce short-lived climate pollutant emissions, generate carbon-negative emissions, reduce wildfire impacts, and increase energy reliability.

 

 

CPUC General Orders Related to Wildfire Safety

General Order 95, last updated in January 2020, contains rules for the design, construction, maintenance, inspection, repair, and replacement of overhead utility facilities, including electric utility facilities, communication facilities, and cable television facilities. General Order 95, Rule 37, Table 1 addresses the above-ground clearances of conductors and the clearances between conductors and other structures/vegetation.

Public Utilities Code 316 and General Order 95, Rule 19 govern the preservation of evidence for investigations of utility-related safety incidents.

General Order 128 contains uniform requirements for underground electrical supply and communication systems, ensuring adequate service and secure safety to all persons engaged in the construction, maintenance, operation, or use of underground systems and the public in general.

General Order 165 established inspection requirements for electric distribution and transmission facilities regarding inspections to ensure safe and high-quality electrical service. The requirements of this order are in addition to requirements under General Orders 95 and 128 to maintain a safe and reliable electric system.

General Order 166 applies to all electric utilities subject to the jurisdiction of CPUC with regard to matters relating to electric service reliability and safety. These standards ensure that electric utilities are prepared for emergencies and disasters in order to minimize damage and inconvenience to the public which may occur as a result of electric system failures, major outages, or hazards posed by damage to electric distribution facilities. The standards will facilitate the Commission’s investigations into the utility’s response to emergencies and major outages. These regulations require electric utilities to prepare an emergency response plan and update the plan annually, enter into mutual assistance agreements with other utilities, conduct annual emergency training and exercises using the utilities emergency response plan, inform the public and relevant public safety agencies of the estimated time for restoring power during a major outage, and prepare fire prevention plans.

 

Other Information

  • For a list of Wildfire Related Resolutions and Decisions click here

 

Wildfire and Wildfire Safety

 

Resources

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT

News and Outreach Office
California Public Utilities Commission
505 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102

(415) 703-1366
news@cpuc.ca.gov

 

Resources

For more information, please contact

News and Outreach Office
California Public Utilities Commission
505 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102

(415) 703-1366
news@cpuc.ca.gov