On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 1463, a bill on fire safety targeted at the risk of fires caused by above ground utilities. The bill was authored by Senator John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) at the request of the City of Laguna Beach and had passed the Legislature on unanimous votes of 75-0 in the Assembly and 39-0 in the Senate.
SB 1463 gave direction to the California Public Utilities Commission to develop a list of enhanced mitigation measures to reduce the risk of fires caused by above ground utilities, to prioritize the areas in which the enhanced mitigation measures should be deployed and to incorporate the concerns of local government into the process. In vetoing the bill, the Governor said that the issues that SB 1463 seeks to address should be raised in the fire safety regulatory process ongoing at the CPUC.
In responding to the veto, Senator Moorlach stated that “Unfortunately, I believe the vetoing of this much needed bill continues to put our public safety at risk. SB 1463 would have ensured that the concerns of local communities were incorporated into crucial decisions regarding fire safety. This critical change has now slipped away and local communities will have to fight to be heard through the process.”
Laguna Beach City Councilmember Bob Whalen, who has spearheaded the effort for the City on SB 1463, said “Clearly, this is a major disappointment to the City and the other cities and counties that had stepped forward to endorse the bill. It is a very common sense piece of fire safety legislation and deserved the Governor’s signature. This bill would have provided important direction to the CPUC in its current regulatory process concerning fire safety and overhead utility lines.”
Whalen went on to say, “I again want to thank Senator Moorlach who carried the bill for us and Assemblyman Mike Gatto who co-authored the bill and pushed it through the Assembly.”
To date, Laguna Beach is the only city in the State to make a formal appearance in the CPUC fire safety proceedings. Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse has testified on several occasions at the CPUC proceedings urging that Laguna Beach be reclassified to a high fire hazard area. Earlier this year, in adopting Fire Map 1, the CPUC had placed Laguna Beach in a low fire hazard area meaning that the City would not receive priority for mitigation measures. Chief LaTendresse said “This whole process of pursuing SB 1463 and appearing in the CPUC proceeding has been very beneficial to Laguna Beach. The Administrative Law Judge running the CPUC fire safety process has ordered that the concerns of Laguna Beach be specifically addressed in the proceedings. I now believe that we will succeed in having the City categorized as a high fire hazard area on Fire Map 2 which is the next step in the CPUC process. SB 1463 would have been a big help to us in achieving our overall goal of better fire safety regulations but we will continue to do our best to make our case to the CPUC.”
Laguna Beach has experienced four fires sparked by utility lines in the last ten years, the most recent on July 3, 2015. Following the 2015 fire, then Mayor Whalen reached out to Southern California Edison President Pedro Pizzaro to discuss a partnership with the City to facilitate the undergrounding of utilities throughout the City. As meetings with SCE failed to produce any meaningful offer of assistance, the City sought a legislative solution with SB 1463.
The last ten years of wildfire history demonstrates the real risk posed by utility fires. As recently as last week, a fire was sparked by utility wires at Vandenberg Air Force Base and earlier this year 500 acres burned in the City of Calabasas following a traffic accident which downed wires. In 2015 the Butte fire in Northern California burned more than 70,000 acres after Pacific Gas and Electric Company wires sparked a fire and in 2007 utility lines caused a 4,500-acre fire in Malibu Canyon.
When asked what the City will do next in light of the veto Whalen stated “I remain committed to finding ways to expedite the undergrounding of utilities in the City. These utility wires present an imminent threat to the safety of all residents and millions of visitors to our city. I am confident that our residents and our City Council will come up with solutions to reduce fire risk by undergrounding utilities in the highest risk areas despite the unwillingness of the utility companies to help. And, we will continue to press the CPUC to hold the utilities accountable for fire safety in areas like Laguna Beach.”
City Manager John Pietig confirmed that staff is working to develop plans to underground utilities at key locations in the City. Pietig said “We are working diligently to figure out undergrounding plans for Laguna Canyon Road where we have had not only utility caused fires but at least 50 vehicle collisions with utility poles over the last ten years. Other high priority areas are the entry to Bluebird Canyon, which is a box canyon with only one way out, and Thalia Street, which is a key evacuation route for people living up in Temple Hills and Top of the World.”
When asked how the City planned to fund this undergrounding, Pietig noted that in addition to contributions from SCE, it will take a combination of revenues. He said “There are some existing revenues that the City can dedicate to this effort, and if the City’s voters pass Measure LL on the November ballot to increase the hotel bed tax, the City Council could choose to direct some of that funding to undergrounding efforts.”