Fire Risks and Undergrounding – Guest Article

“What I find most interesting is the tacit assumption that urban utility lines constitute high risk. Yes, there is risk of fire from utility lines, but the proponents do not quantify the risk for urban lines; rather, they talk about wildfires and car accidents without any hard numbers or facts. The Orange County Emergency Management Plan says that the risk of urban fire, caused by all sources, is about the same as an oil spill, train accident, or aircraft crash. The city has not cited any statistics of cars hitting poles. Nor will removing poles reduce accidents — cars will hit what was behind the poles — in some cases houses. The city has not done a cost/benefit analysis of risk vs. cost.

There is another assumption that is simply false: a fire caused by a downed pole in an urban area seldom spreads, as did the fire in North Laguna or Sonoma recently — the fires began in the dry chaparal. Wildfires start in the chaparal and head toward cities, not from them. Undergrounding the utilities in the city does nothing to reduce the risk of wildfires in the chaparal, nor does it put the high voltage, cross-country lines underground.

None of this information is new. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has been studying power line safety for over 100 years, and there are thousands of scientific papers published on the subject, but who has time to look up facts? We’ve seen time and again that science does not enter into City Council decisions, only tax and spend. Laguna Beach is not the first city to have utility poles — most cities have them. The truth be known, this initiative is about taxing and spending tens of millions for aesthetics and over-priced ocean views, not public safety. Under State law the city’s highest priority is safety, but it goes begging.

The Orange County Emergency Management Plan says that flood/storms, hazardous materials, earthquakes, epidemics, and mudslide/landslide are all higher and more frequent risks in Laguna Beach, yet the Council makes little-to-no effort for flood protection or mudslides, for which Laguna Beach regularly makes the national news. How quickly we forget the flooding, houses falling down hills, and deaths that have happened from mudslides. The slide in Montecito that killed dozens was only a few weeks ago.

As for exit routes, Laguna Canyon has a much higher risk from flooding and slides than from downed poles. Remember how many days it was impassible after the last major flood, as was PCH in South Laguna? The flooding is regular and not rare. Unfortunately, flood control is not chic or trendy or ever mentioned in real estate ads, i.e., 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, great view, and flood control. It is the last item that our City Council is, by law, responsible for, not great views.”

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