PG&E, in Reversal, to Bury Power Lines in Fire-Prone Areas

Smoke from wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada reached as far east as the New York City Tri-State area this week, affecting air quality and creating hazy skies into Wednesday morning. Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

PG&E Corp. said Wednesday that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines to reduce wildfire risk throughout Northern California at an estimated cost of up to $20 billion, reversing its earlier stance that doing so would be prohibitively expensive.

The utility company, which serves about 16 million customers in northern and central California, said the effort will substantially reduce the likelihood of its power lines sparking wildfires as drought and climate change heighten the risk of large, fast-moving blazes.

“We know that we have long argued that undergrounding was too expensive,” Chief Executive Patti Poppe said. “This is where we say it’s too expensive not to underground. Lives are on the line.”

PG&E’s equipment has ignited more than 20 California wildfires within the past several years that have collectively killed more than 100 people and burned thousands of homes. Most of the fires were sparked when trees or branches touched the company’s wires.

PG&E disclosed to California regulators earlier this week that one of its power lines may have been involved in the ignition of one of the fires currently ravaging the West, the Dixie Fire, which has grown to cover more than 85,000 acres in Northern California. The company said in a regulatory filing that an employee responding to a power outage discovered a fire beneath one of its distribution lines in the Feather River Canyon in the forested Sierra Nevada foothills.