In the heart of the East Bay lies the Montclair neighborhood, a picturesque community bordered by the scarred remnants of the devastating 1991 Oakland hills firestorm. Although more than three decades have passed since that tragic event claimed 25 lives and destroyed 3,000 homes, residents believe that the wildfire threat has only intensified. With an unwavering determination to safeguard their community, they have taken action by petitioning Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) to prioritize their neighborhood in its ambitious plan to bury 10,000 miles of overhead power lines. Join us as we delve into the urgent plea of Montclair residents and the critical importance of addressing fire risks in the East Bay.
A Growing Concern:
Nestled within the boundaries of the Oakland hills burn zone, the Montclair neighborhood and numerous other wildfire-prone areas in the Bay Area find themselves excluded from PG&E’s initial plans for undergrounding power lines through 2024. As the largest utility in Northern California, PG&E operates over 100,000 miles of power lines across its vast 70,000-square-mile territory, with half of it designated as a high fire threat by the state. Recent years have witnessed over 30 wildfires caused by the utility’s equipment, resulting in tragic loss of life, thousands of destroyed homes, bankruptcy, and a guilty plea to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter.
PG&E’s Undergrounding Initiative:
To confront this immense challenge, PG&E unveiled a plan two years ago to bury one-third of its 30,000 miles of overhead power lines in high-fire-risk regions. However, Montclair, situated in the midst of the Cal Fire-designated “very high fire severity zone” spanning the East Bay hills, finds itself neglected. While PG&E estimates that the complete project will cost $28 billion and reduce wildfire risk by 70% in the surrounding areas, no target completion date has been announced. As of April, PG&E reported burying only 262 miles, with a goal of burying 600 miles by year-end. Their online maps identify locations for undergrounding approximately 1,200 miles in 2023-24, aiming for a total of 2,300 miles buried by 2026.
Montclair’s Perilous Situation:
Residents of Montclair argue that their neighborhood, with its high risk of wildfires, power outages, and PG&E’s public safety power shutoffs, should be prioritized due to its proximity to the catastrophic 1991 firestorm. A group of concerned neighbors launched a petition on change.org, gathering over 2,000 signatures since March, alongside the support of Oakland city officials. Cynthia Barbera, the spokesperson for the group, emphasized the constant sense of peril felt by those living on the hills, where a single spark could ignite a disaster at any time. She shared the harrowing memory of her family’s struggle to reach her father during the 1991 firestorm, an experience that epitomizes the weight of life and death endured by Montclair residents.
PG&E’s current undergrounding plan primarily focuses on rural areas and parts of the Sierra, including counties recently devastated by some of California’s most destructive blazes. Butte County, ravaged by the Camp Fire in 2018 and the Dixie Fire in 2021, is slated for the most significant undergrounding, covering 238 miles of power lines. Similarly, Shasta County, affected by the Carr Fire in 2018, will witness the burial of 97 miles, while El Dorado County, home to the Caldor Fire in 2021, will see 120 miles underground. In contrast, Alameda County
, where Montclair resides, is only allocated 1 mile of undergrounding—specifically in the hills above Berkeley. Montclair residents and Oakland officials contend that PG&E’s risk modeling fails to adequately consider population density and accessibility, critical factors for their neighborhood’s fire vulnerability.
The Montclair Perspective:
Montclair’s susceptibility to catastrophic wildfires arises from its dry vegetation and the treacherous, winding roads that complicate evacuation and impede the entry of fire trucks. The combination of these challenges, coupled with the neighborhood’s dense population, demands serious consideration in PG&E’s risk assessment. Joe DeVries, Oakland’s deputy city administrator and chief resilience officer, emphasized in a letter to the state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety that population density and accessibility should be pivotal factors when evaluating wildfire risk in Montclair. In response, PG&E committed to incorporating ingress and egress considerations into an updated risk model, recognizing the importance of these aspects in the overall assessment of fire hazards.
The Importance of Undergrounding:
While the Oakland Fire Department’s comprehensive wildfire prevention programs and the community’s commitment to creating defensible spaces have successfully protected the Oakland hills from devastating blazes, the crucial step of burying power lines remains unfinished. City officials stress that undergrounding is essential in reducing wildfire risks, as acknowledged by PG&E’s efforts to harden power systems. Recognizing the challenges posed by higher housing and construction costs in the Bay Area, Montclair residents believe they deserve the same consideration as other regions. PG&E’s proposal to raise rates by 21% by 2026 to fund the 10-year undergrounding project is currently under review, with the bill’s impact on customers yet to be determined.
A Call for Action:
Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law to expedite undergrounding plans by providing financial support from federal, state, and other sources. The law appointed the Public Utilities Commission and Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety to oversee utilities’ costs, progress reports, and wildfire mitigation plans. The Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety has engaged with Montclair residents, actively assessing their comments as part of the evaluation process for PG&E’s 2023-25 wildfire mitigation plan. As the stakes remain high, Montclair’s residents persevere in their pursuit of a safer community, urging PG&E to prioritize their neighborhood and take decisive action against the ever-increasing threat of wildfires.
As the Montclair neighborhood and other vulnerable regions in the East Bay confront the escalating wildfire danger, the urgent need for enhanced fire safety measures becomes apparent. Montclair residents have embarked on a mission to secure their community’s well-being, petitioning PG&E to prioritize their neighborhood in the undergrounding of power lines. The battle for a safer future continues, fueled by the determination to protect lives, homes, and the natural beauty of the East Bay.