In the past 15 years, six fires have caused damage at Jim York’s 94-acre property, which features a vineyard and several orchards, in Rancho Palos Verdes.
York, owner of York Point View Properties, said he wants to work with Southern California Edison to underground electrical wires he claims are the cause of the fires, including the latest one on June 11. He has worked with SCE, he said, and its tenant Cox Communications to grant easements through his property to underground the wires.
But, undergrounding utilities is not that easy, according to Peninsula city officials and a spokesperson for SCE. Generally, it's the most time intensive and costly option, said David Song, public information officer for the utility company, who offered customers like York have many other ways to mitigate wildfire risk.
But, damage to his or others' property on the Peninsula would would be much more costly, countered York, if one of these brush fires went undetected and grew out of control.
The fire that broke out on his property on June 11 began, said York, with two big bangs. York and workers went to investigate and found the brush fire.
“Fortunately, we were able to call the fire department right across the street, they came up and put out the fire,” said York after the fire. “But it was extremely fortunate that somebody was working there." York added that on the day of the fire, it wasn't windy, but relatively calm.
The fires on York’s property illustrate one of the dangers, many which are man made according to fire officials, that residents face on the Palos Verdes Peninsula with the beginning of the fire season.
Song said he could not specifically address York’s claim that SCE equipment caused the June 11 and prior fires.
“We're considering all reasonably viable options to address fire risk at this property, taking into account obviously the concerns of this property owner along with the interests of customers in the immediate area across our service territory,” Song said.
York said SCE responded in an email on June 15 saying they would upgrade circuit breakers, a substation serving a pole line in addition to other safety upgrades.
Song said about 27% of Edison’s coverage area of 50,000 square miles, or about one-third of California, is considered high fire risk including the Peninsula. SCE is dedicated to keeping communities safe, he said, and making its system strong and more resilient.
SCE has replaced more than 170 poles in the Palos Verdes area in the past year, said Song. And, they have replaced dozens of cross arms to make them more fire resistant. Last year, he said, SCE replaced nearly two miles of wires with covered conductors, and will replaced two-thirds of a mile in 2020, all to upgrade overhead equipment.
“A lot of our work is through the lens of wildfire mitigation and prevention,” Song said.
A fire in July 2005, which started on his property, York said, burned 250 acres. York said that fire was caused by a power pole that broke. He added SCE paid him $285,000 for damages after he filed a claim. York contends the power pole was not maintained.
"It broke and a live wire hit the brush and started the fire," York said.
York said he is not sure yet what cause the fire on June 11.
“What is concerning is that the equipment has failed on those, but also the wires are not coated which means they're hot,” York said. “If a bird or any animal touches two wires at the same time, or a person, they get electrocuted.”
Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Ara Mihranian did not want to comment specifically to York’s situation, but he said fires caused by utilities are a concern on the Peninsula.
“The dialogue has become, a while ago, about how to work with the utility companies to harden their equipment and to find ways to prevent these wildfires from happening,” Mihranian said.
There are several ways undergrounding can be funded with SCE including funds though a surcharge on a utility bill; homeowners can form a district; or property owners pay for the entire cost of the underground project.
Palos Verdes Estate’s City Manager Laura Guglielmo, who took the position in June, said a city ordinance requires new development to underground utilities, but it is generally not done unless it is part of a new residential tract or large commercial development.
“Southern California Edison keeps a small amount from each rate payer's monthly bill for undergrounding districts for the public right-of-way, but it takes years to build up enough funds to do a mile or two of undergrounding at a time,” Guglielmo said in an email.
In a letter dated July 21 to California State Senator Mike McGuire, RVP Mayor John Cruikshank stated the city’s support for SB 1312, which passed the Senate in June and advanced to the California State Assembly, where it was referred to the Utilities and Energy Committee.
Mihranian said the passage of California Senate Bill 1312 would require the California Public Utilities Commission to revise the Electric Tariff Rule 20.
The bill, in part, will authorize and fund, “whenever feasible,” undergrounding in certain “high fire threat areas” to help mitigate wildfires.
Revising the Rule 20 program would make it possible for cities, including RPV to do undergrounding for wildfire prevention, said Megan Barnes, spokesperson for RPV.
“Unless projects meet the program’s limited eligibility criteria —namely, being located along a major street—they are left to be funded by property owners who are proactive, willing and able to foot the bill,” read a RPV city staff report.
“It is complicated and very expensive,” Mihranian said of undergrounding. “So it’s probably an issue that won’t happen anytime soon, I’m assuming.”
David Wahba, Director of Community Development & Public Works for the city of Rolling Hills Estates, said homeowners doing major remodels or new projects in the works are required to have utilities placed underground, but older neighborhoods with above-ground utilities still comprise much of the Peninsula.
Wahba said neighborhoods can form an underground assessment district that would allow the work to be done and paid for typically in a 30-year period through property tax, but many balk because of the cost.
“This is very expensive and met with general resistance particularly from older homeowners who may not be able to or want to afford it,” Wahba said.
In spite of the cost, three neighborhoods in Manhattan Beach have voted to bury their wires after a 2017 moratorium was lifted. Five other Manhattan Beach neighborhoods have already buried their lines underground, prior to the moratorium.
For one Manhattan Beach neighborhood consisting of 167 properties, residential owners will pay an average $42,423 in assessments, while commercial property owners pay between $42,280 and $128,323. Households have the option to defer payments if income is less than $100,000 per year, the owner is 62 or older, blind or disabled.