Governor Rejects Fire-Safety Measure

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Retardant-dropping planes douse a wildfire last summer in Laguna Canyon caused by downed power lines.
Retardant-dropping planes douse a wildfire last summer in Laguna Canyon caused by downed power lines.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 1463, a measure pushed by the City of Laguna Beach to put utility companies on notice about the risk posed by their above ground wires.

The bill, vetoed on Saturday, Sept. 24, was authored by state Senator John Moorlach, a Republican from Costa Mesa, at Laguna’s request. It 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 measures to reduce the risk of fires caused by above ground utilities, to prioritize the areas where they should be deployed and to incorporate the concerns of local government into the process, says a city statement.

Laguna Beach has experienced four fires sparked by utility lines in the last 10 years, the most recent on July 3, 2015.

In vetoing the bill, the governor said the issues should be raised within the CPUC’s regulatory process.

“Clearly, this is a major disappointment to the City and the other cities and counties that had stepped forward to endorse the bill,” said a statement by Laguna Beach City Council member Bob Whalen, who spearheaded the effort in Sacramento.

“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 said.

Moorlach lamented the lost opportunity. “This critical change has now slipped away and local communities will have to fight to be heard through the process,” Moorlach said.”

To date, Laguna Beach is the only city to make a formal appearance in the CPUC fire safety proceedings, the statement says. Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse has testified more than once, 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 when utility companies seek approvals for changes to their distribution system.

LaTendresse said the process may prove beneficial even without the bill. “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,” he said in a statement.

Despite the lack of willingness by utility companies to help, Whalen said Laguna will continue to press the CPUC to hold the utilities accountable for fire safety. He called utility wires an imminent threat to the safety of residents and visitors.

City Manager John Pietig said city staff is pursuing undergrounding plans for Laguna Canyon Road, where utility caused fires have erupted and 50 cars have collided with utility poles over the last 10 years. Other high priority areas are the entry to Bluebird Canyon, a box canyon with only one way out, and Thalia Street, a key evacuation route from the Temple Hills and Top of the World neighborhoods, he said.

 

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