City Controller Calls for L.A. Dept. of Water & Power to Cut the Risk of Power Line-Induced Wildfires

LOS ANGELES — Today, Controller Ron Galperin released a report assessing the wildfire risks faced by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and urging the utility to take steps to better protect communities, ratepayers and the environment from the growing threat of catastrophic blazes.

His report, “It Only Takes a Spark: Enhancing DWP’s Wildfire Prevention Strategy,” calls on the City and its power utility to boost inspections of overhead power lines and transmission equipment, eliminate maintenance backlogs on old utility poles, prioritize strategic planning to manage fire risks and expand the use of technology — including drones, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence programs — to help detect wildfire safety issues.

As the largest publicly-owned utility in the country, the DWP is responsible for delivering power safely to 1.5 million ratepayers in Los Angeles and beyond,” said Controller Galperin. “The rash of destructive wildfires across California is posing new challenges for the DWP and other power utilities across the state. Our local public utility can to do more to prevent these catastrophic events, which will improve the safety and reliability of the power system as a whole.”

Wildfires have become increasingly common over the past decade, ravaging millions of acres in California’s rural and metropolitan areas. Although fires start for a number of reasons — including high winds and dry conditions — since 2015, overhead power lines have sparked six of the 10 worst fires ever recorded, burning 649,0000 acres, destroying 23,500 structures and killing 108 people. These dangers are a growing concern for utilities like the DWP, which has power line infrastructure in California and two additional states.

Downed overhead power lines operated by the bankrupt private utility PG&E caused the Camp Fire — the state’s worst-ever fire — and the L.A.’s recent Getty fire reportedly started when a tree branch fell onto live power lines.

DWP wildfire challenges include:

  • 15 percent of the DWP’s service territory falls within elevated wildfire threat areas established by the state.
  • 49,000 DWP utility poles, most of which are wooden, are in these areas.
  • 30 percent of those utility poles are more than 65 years old.
  • 18 percent of the DWP’s transmission towers and power lines are in wildfire threat areas.
  • 1,048 fire safety-related maintenance orders remain backlogged in wildfire threat areas.

The DWP has already taken some steps to reduce the danger of wildfires in recent years, but given their increased frequency, the utility must do more to address potential safety issues, clear backlogs, better manage brush and vegetation, and proactively mitigate wildfire risks. Consultants estimate that the DWP could suffer an average of $42 million losses each year for the next 100 years.

Galperin’s report urges the City and its utility to:

  • Enhance inspections in high fire threat zones and use drone technology to evaluate utility poles and infrared cameras to detect potential equipment failures.
  • Eliminate all maintenance backlogs in fire risk areas.
  • Work with LAFD to jointly evaluate vegetation and other risks in fire threat areas.
  • Prioritize strategic planning to manage wildfire risks, and report to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and City Council on utility equipment fire incidents.
  • Deploy remote monitoring tech tools, like HD cameras and weather stations, where fire threats exist.
  • Use predictive analytics and artificial intelligence programs to help the department detect wildfire safety issues.
  • Assess the possibility of creating a wildfire insurance fund for publicly-owned power utilities to spread financial risks, much like the state fund created in July 2019 for privately-owned utilities.

Accompanying his report, Galperin has also released an interactive, online resource map and data story showing recent utility-related fires, wildfire threat areas in DWP service territory and his recommendations for change.

Read the full report and view the map here: lacontroller.org/dwpwildfireprevention or https://lacontroller.org/audits-and-reports/dwps-wildfire-prevention/

Follow L.A. Controller Ron Galperin at @LAController on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

###