A California Public Utilities Commission proposal to tighten standards for power lines owned by both investor- and municipally-owned utilities to prevent wildfires during Santa Ana conditions drew a sparse crowd March 18 at a public hearing in Los Angeles. The proposed rules mark an interim step in a proceeding that may eventually call for utilities in Southern California to run lines underground in fire-prone areas, which a utility trade group says could cost about $1 million a mile. It\u2019s important for the commission to make transmission of electricity safer to prevent the danger of fire in Southern California, commissioner Tim Simon said in a written statement read at the public hearing. \u201cFires ignited by electric power lines have been responsible for some of the largest wildfires in history,\u201d stated the commission\u2019s Consumer Protection and Safety Division in a report proposing the regulations. In 2007, investigators say power lines sparked massive wildfires in San Diego County that burned down more than a thousand homes. The proposed standards--slated for commission consideration in August--would expand CPUC safety requirements to all power and communications lines. The commission\u2019s existing standards apply only to privately owned lines, though public utilities follow similar safeguards. Some municipal utilities oppose the commission\u2019s move to expand coverage to public utility lines, arguing that the commission does not have legal jurisdiction. The safety division characterizes the opposition as the equivalent of \u201cNero fiddling while Rome burned.\u201d The California Municipal Utilities Association told the commission in a filing that imposing inspection and maintenance \u201cwould most likely lead to time-consuming jurisdictional disputes.\u201d Transmission lines already are covered by Western Electric Coordinating Council and North American Electric Reliability Corporation standards, the association said. However, the Los Angeles County Fire Department supported the safety division. \u201cIt\u2019s important the CPUC has expanded its jurisdiction to include some of these other publicly owned utilities,\u201d said John Todd, Los Angeles County Fire Department assistant chief. The county is home to several public utilities, including the massive Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The safety division\u2019s proposed standards aim to improve vegetation management along lines in Southern California, require more frequent inspections, prevent poles from being overloaded with equipment, and promote prompt reporting of infractions or outbreaks of fires. Line operators also would have to maintain records, including calculations showing the strength of poles in high wind conditions. Communications lines also would be covered. After voting on these proposals this summer, the commission is planning to take up additional standards that may require enhancements of existing lines, including running them underground in fire prone areas. San Diego Gas & Electric has suggested this strategy and proposed that utilities be able to fully recover the associated costs through their rates. Los Angeles County also is pressing the commission to require that lines be buried in fire prone areas. The risk that power lines could spark fires in high winds should be a reason to allow utilities to bury them and recover the expense through rates, said Scott Kuhn, Los Angeles County attorney. He added that the commission should establish a funding approach to \u201cundergrounding\u201d power lines that allows local governments to contribute to the expense when they have the money. The Edison Electric Institute in 2006 estimated the cost of burying power lines at $1 million a mile, about ten times the typical cost of installing overhead lines. However, experience has shown that the cost can vary widely. Hawaiian Electric, for instance, paid about $12 million a mile for one recent project. The prospect of burying lines at ratepayer expense led The Utility Reform Network to intervene in the proceeding last month. TURN said it wants to ensure \u201cthat any rule changes do not unduly burden utility ratepayers with additional costs.\u201d The proposed rules follow a series of workshops the CPUC held last month (Circuit, March 6, 2009). The commission started to review its existing standards after investigators found last year that downed power lines ignited massive wildfires in San Diego County in the fall of 2007 (Circuit, Nov. 14, 2008). The CPUC safety division implicated the utility in two tragic fires. The first was the Witch Fire, which burned 197,990 acres, killed two civilians, and injured 40 firefighters. That fire also burned down 1,141 homes, 509 outbuildings, and 239 vehicles. The second fire was the Guejito Fire, which merged with the massive Witch fire and damaged an additional 75 homes and 25 outbuildings. A third fire at issue was the smaller 9,472 acre Rice Fire, which burned down 206 homes, two commercial properties, and 40 outbuildings.