Placing power lines underground is an expensive way to reduce fire danger

The worst fire in California history took off at a spot notorious for its intense winds.

The gusts — some topping 100 mph — blow down the Feather River Canyon each fall. They push into the town of Paradise with force, powered by high-pressure air parked over the Great Basin that moves through this narrow corridor of the Sierra Nevada.

In November, the winds blasted through the canyon with warm, dry air at sunrise. Power equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. failed, sparking a fire that killed 85 people and destroyed most of the town of Paradise in a matter of hours.

This week, PG&E announced it would rebuild Paradise’s power system underground. The process is expensive and speaks to the huge challenges facing California utilities after a series of destructive fires, experts say.

Utilities have been blamed for starting more than 2,000 fires in the last few years, including the Camp fire in Paradise, the wine country infernos and the Thomas fire, which blackened 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in 2017.

“It didn’t used to be so dangerous,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program. “What’s become different in California is we have existing high fire risk — we’ve had it forever — we’ve been suppressing fire [for decades] pretty effectively, and we’ve built up all this valuable real estate and put people where the fires burned, and it’s all coming to a head.”

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Placing power lines underground is an expensive way to reduce fire danger, by Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Joseph Serna, May 25, 2019.

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