Berkeley is pursuing undergrounding utility wires on major streets, an expensive effort that could improve fire safety. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The summer after wildfires tore through the North Bay, not discriminating between city and country, Cal Fire investigators announced the cause of a dozen of the destructive blazes: PG&E equipment.

In some cases, trees toppled onto power lines, and in another case a power pole failed, bringing the wires down to the ground and starting an electrical fire, the agency said. Investigators found evidence that the utility had failed to comply with state laws around maintenance of the equipment.

As Berkeley braces for “the big one,” or for fires similar to those unprecedented flames that overtook North Bay counties in 2017 and Butte County this fall, some residents and officials want to take overhead power lines out of the equation altogether.

Back in December 2014 the City Council asked three Berkeley commissions to come up with a plan to underground power lines throughout the city. In January 2018, a subcommittee that included several of the commissioners and some city staff released the product of that research, a lengthy report analyzing the potential impacts of undergrounding and how the work might be funded.

Now the City Council has allocated $200,000 for a temporary staff member to take the next steps toward undergrounding Berkeley’s utility lines — despite the high cost and time required to accomplish such a task.

“In the majority of the biggest fires, the spark that lit the fuse was electrical equipment,” said Victoria Legg, a disaster and fire safety commissioner who worked on the report and studied recent disasters. “The [Berkeley] hills, in particular, are vulnerable because of the wildland and transmission lines behind us.”

Undergrounding is not just a prevention measure, advocates say. Removing overhead power lines on select major roads in Berkeley would also clear the way for evacuation from the hills — or for first responders to get up there — in the case of a disaster.

“Hundreds of people will die if we can’t get out on the escape routes,” said Bob Flasher, another commissioner who helped with the report. “All these fires are notorious for horrific traffic jams out of town.” Adding felled utility wires and poles in the middle of those streets won’t help, he said.

A tree branch falls on a power line on Carleton Street. Those circumstances can start fires. Photo: Jack Nicolaus

The subcommittee has recommended that the city select two to four major east-west streets to underground first, enabling smoother evacuation. The streets have not been selected yet, but people who spoke to Berkeleyside suggested Dwight Way, Cedar Street and Marin Avenue were in the running. Ashby Avenue would be an obvious contender, some said, but it’s a state highway that is not in the city’s control.

Despite the recent cautionary tales and City Council support for undergrounding, it won’t be easy to get all that equipment out of sight and below the ground. Mainly, the work comes at a large cost.

A consultant estimated that it would cost $135 million to underground all of Berkeley’s remaining 40 miles of arterial or collector street wiring — or much more, adding all the associated required work, according to the committee. (Arterials are the major city streets and collectors are those that connect them to small, residential roads.) Just handling those two to four streets, or 10-15 miles, is still expected to cost $50-$75 million.

“It’s extremely expensive,” said City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “We have to find out a way to finance it.”

Wengraf has advocated for undergrounding for years and took a trip to San Diego with some commissioners a couple years ago to see how that city successfully undergrounds about 15 miles of wires annually.

During that trip, which Wengraf and commissioners paid for out of their own pockets, it was “clear that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” the councilwoman said. Along with state funds, San Diego uses revenue from an electric bill surcharge. The city and the local utility work together, said Wengraf, whereas PG&E “is not a real partner — they’re very resistant.”

Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email that the utility is “committed to having conversations with communities to determine where it makes sense to underground lines.”

However, she said, “it is important to understand that undergrounding is not a solution to address the immediate wildfire threat our customers face right now.” The process is “complex” and lengthy, and underground equipment can still be damaged by earthquakes, floods and other circumstances. When that happens, the wires are harder to repair, she said.

In the long term, PG&E will work on installing stronger poles and covered power lines to better withstand weather, Sarkissian said. In response to the North Bay fires and the utility’s culpability, PG&E says it has implemented a wide variety of additional fire safety efforts too.

How will Berkeley pay for undergrounding?

In 1967, the California Public Utilities Commission created its Rule 20, a mechanism for financing undergrounding projects. A utility company is required to pay for certain projects and, in other cases, project developers or groups of homeowners or utility customers pay for some or all of the cost.

Berkeley gets a $539,000 CPUC Rule 20 allotment annually, which Wengraf called a “ridiculously small amount” given the estimated $3.6 million cost of undergrounding a mile. Those funds have already been committed for future projects in Berkeley too.

PG&E crews trim trees on Henry Street in preparation for a large storm in 2017. Photo: PG&E

The new city staff member will work on bringing two projects currently in PG&E’s queue to completion, then work to identify streets to be undergrounded and sources to fund the work, said Phil Harrington, Berkeley’s public works director.

“It’ll have to be a revenue source that’s developed and generated inside Berkeley itself,” he said. That could look like an extra customer utility fee or a bond measure.

Despite the high-cost estimate, “based on the track record of recent bonds, it’s not insurmountable,” Harrington said. He pointed to voters’ strong approval of a $135 million affordable housing bond in November.

Preventive fire safety work might not generate the same support, however.

“It’s a tough one. People don’t want to pay a lot of money for an event they don’t think is going to happen,” Flasher said.

Wengraf said she’s been pushing for stronger fire safety in Berkeley for many years, but has witnessed a swell in public interest more recently. Residents and officials throughout the city, not just in her hills district, are beginning to grasp the enormity of the threat, she said.

“In Santa Rosa, wildfires started in the urban interface…but we saw fires going all the way down to areas that did not have that designation. The wind carried embers,” Wengraf said.

On undergrounding and other prevention measures, Wengraf said, “Just check Nextdoor — people really want it.”

Groups of Berkeley residents actually began banding together decades ago to get their neighborhoods’ utility wires undergrounded.

Flasher lives in one of those neighborhoods, where about 200 households signed up to pay their fractions of the cost to underground their area, after a storm 30 years ago knocked down utility equipment and burned four houses down, he said.

But “we waited about 24 or 25 years” for the work to get done, Flasher said. “It took so long that by the time we got around to doing it, they wanted to assess us again — the cost of street lights had gone up.” By then, the woman who had spearheaded the effort had died.

And even though Flasher’s neighbors were all gung-ho, in other cases renters and short-term or low-income residents are less likely to want to, or be able to, commit to such a project.

Currently, there are two Berkeley projects in PG&E’s lineup, one on Vistamont Avenue and one on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. The utility works with phone and cable companies on these efforts, which entail a number of steps, PG&E says on its website.

“A lot of engineering work has to go into it,” Wengraf said. “You have to trench. You have to cut open the asphalt. It’s a long process, but they should be looking into new technologies to do it.”

New evacuation plan in the works

While undergrounding could take years to come to fruition, the city is simultaneously working on an evacuation plan for likely release in 2019, said Berkeley Fire Department Chief Keith May, a department spokesman. The plan will include specific steps for wildfires, he said.

Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan addresses the crowd at a multi-agency fire-safety event in the hills. Photo: Daphne White

In the spring Chief Dave Brannigan told Berkeleyside that the evacuation plan, then expected to be completed over the summer, will divide the city into a grid, with each segment receiving designated evacuation routes and customized communication. The city is working on identifying which streets in the hills can support two-way traffic and which can’t.

Ideally, the fire department will secure funding for one-way traffic lights and other equipment, like wildfire sensor devices that can be installed in residents’ homes, May said.

Residents can currently receive emergency notifications through AC Alert and Nixle alerts.

Sometimes the quickest and safest way to evacuate is by foot, on the walking paths that often offer a straighter shot down the Berkeley Hills than the narrow, winding roads. Those trails are overseen by a citizen group, the Path Wanderers, which is working with others to make the paths better identified and more accessible. Fire officials say residents exiting by foot should still leave their cars parked off the street and out of the way.

As for utility equipment, “in a world of utopia, all lines are underground,” May said. If that were the case, “PG&E would not have a need to shut off power (during a wildfire). That affects everything we do,” such as using traffic lights to direct evacuators, he said.

With climate change leading to hotter temperatures and years of drought, California fires are “not going to get better,” May said. The new blazes are bigger and harder to control.

The longtime residents left in the East Bay hills, who experienced the 1991 firestorm that took 25 lives, don’t need to be convinced of the ever-present danger.

“We have a history here,” Harrington said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...