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California Considers Switching Off Power Lines As Wildfire Prevention

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) – Some people in California think switching off power lines could be key to wildfire prevention, but it may come with another set of dangers.

A meeting on Wednesday between the California Public Utilities Commission and public utilities was basically a high-level summit to talk about the role utilities play in wildfires. Not only what they can do to avoid damage to their own infrastructure, but also how they can avoid causing damage to their communities.

Now, when you're facing several lawsuits on that very subject, it's a dicey one to discuss with the press.

It was a year of fire and finger pointing for California.

And while the cause of the North Bay blazes is still under investigation, the effort to prevent another is in full swing.

Big wigs from three of California's power companies met with the California Public Utilities Commission to talk about their role in wildfires: both cause and effect.

CPUC Safety Enforcement Deputy Director Lee Palmer said, "We have to collaborate more, not only with between utilities, but the actual state agencies themselves."

That is why the CPUC is looking into creating a state standard for de-energizing power lines, shutting them off ahead of things like red flag warnings for fire risk.

But when and how to flip the switch is a call that PG&E says is far from simple.

PG&E spokesperson Keith Stephens said, "Keeping the power on is very important. You're talking about power to street lights, you're talking about power to elevators, cell towers. So when you turn that off proactively, that creates a whole new set of safety risks for other people to consider."

But PG&E's vice president of electric operations Patrick Hogan wouldn't talk to us at the Wednesday meeting about how shutting off power could have prevented wine country's wildfires.

PG&E currently faces at least three separate lawsuits on the fires. Sonoma County most recently joined the fray, suing for lost property taxes.

We asked PG&E to explain how Wednesday's conversation about utility safety and wildfires play into the lawsuits filed against them.

PG&E spokesperson Stephens said the company is aware of the lawsuits, but said the company is "focused on really making sure that we're helping the people that were impacted by the fires get back on their feet."

Creating a statewide standard for de-energizing during times of high fire risk is a long process and this is just the first of what is likely to be many, many meetings to come.

State insurance claims from last year's wildfires have reached $11.8 billion. That's the most expensive series of wildfires in California history.

The firestorms damaged or destroyed more than 32,000 homes.

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