The Christmas Tree Hill Fire Destruction Avoidance Committee is dedicated to persuading PG&E that the only safe and viable long term outcome for utilities on Christmas Tree Hill is to put them underground. We have requested that PG&E use its own funds to do so. Here is the letter to PG&E that started it all. Since inception, we have met with PG&E, the Corte Madera town manager and representatives of State Assembly Member Mark Levine's office.
Did you know?
- Christmas Tree Hill has been designated Tier 3 Extreme Fire Risk by the California Public Utilities Commission. Tier 3 is the most risky type of area for wildfire and following this designation PG&E is planning to undertake some fairly aggressive fire prevention measures on CTH.
- PG&E's requirements mandate clearances of at least 4 feet around power lines in Tier 3 areas. To ensure compliance between inspections this means the actual clearance upon cutting would need to be 12 feet. There is also a voluntary goal of 15 feet clearance, with attendant cuts to 23 feet to have 15 feet minimum between inspections, though we understand from PG&E this is an optional, aspirational goal. Based on the lesser 4/12 standard, FDAC's estimate (derived from a walking obervation of a certain segment extrapolated to the full length of lines on CTH) is that this would entail felling or significantly cutting back approximately 640 trees on CTH. If you assume the 15/23 standard, this increases the estimate to 1,100 trees. So at minimum - over six hundred trees to be cut, now and then again over time.
- PG&E will soon start proactively cutting off power to Christmas Tree Hill on windy days. The estimated days per year that power would be cut off is unclear but PG&E representatives told us the expectation is 1-2 days per year. PG&E expects this to occur in Tier 3 areas on days with high winds between May and October, and the actual number of days may be higher.
- Once cut off, power will not be automatically restored. This is because high winds may have dislodged wires. So PG&E's guidelines stipulate that "power can only be restored after manually patrolling Christmas Tree Hill to ensure it is safe to turn the power back on". This means that on days upon which they cut off our power, restoration will not be quick.
- PG&E additionally may coat and pre-treat power poles with fire retardant and completely replace certain existing poles. This part of the project is in early stages, and PG&E's representative thought there would not be likely to be large-scale chemical treatment, but it is possible. If this goes forward, while this sounds good on paper, our view is that given the tree density and access issues, on CTH this is money "not well spent" that ought to be directed to undergrounding.
Why is Christmas Tree Hill Different?
- Our committee's view is that CTH is a very unique area which is not the "norm" and that because of our unique attributes, undergrounding is essential.
- The attributes that make CTH unique include a single egress point, narrow roads with no sidewalks, some houses with no road access at all, dense forestation, a high elevation, and a long exit time to the egress point especially from higher altitudes.
What Does Our Committee Want?
- We are requesting that rather than cut down or significantly prune some 640-1,100 trees, now and over time, and potentially use chemical fire retardant on poles, PG&E underground the utilities on CTH.
- We believe this is the only way to ensure the safest conditions for the hill.
- Undergrounding would eliminate the need to proactively shut off our power during high wind events and the attendant delays in power restoration.
- Our position is that undergrounding will actually save PG&E money: it's not cheap to cut and prune 640-1,100 trees now and forever. And undergrounding reduces their legal exposure because it significantly reduces fire risk.
- The potential for loss of life and property in the event of a utility incited fire on CTH is large. PG&E should take the effort to underground, and mitigate the risk once and forever.
Myths and Fallacies
- "Its Too Expensive To Underground CTH". The truth is that it is expensive, but not overly so in context. There are about 6 miles of lines to be undergrounded on CTH. Our committee believes the job is around $6.0-7.5 million. Our estimate is based on our own research, as well as on PG&E's comment that in general undergrounding is $1 million per mile (that would be $6 million for CTH), and that CTH may be more expensive due to access issues (thus the upper end estimate of $7.5 million). There are about 400 households on the hill. Consider a total devastation caused by a utility incited fire. If you assume a rebuilding cost and cost to replace personal property of $2.5 million per houehold, PG&E's liability risk is $1 billion. And that's before liability for loss of life. Remember too, the $6.0-7.5 million is one time! What's the cost to cut 640-1,100 trees forever? To coat and replace poles? At some point, it will exceed $6.0-7.5 million. So in context, undergrounding is not overly expensive, in fact its rational.
- "I'll Have To Pay". Our request is that PG&E use balance sheet or other funds to underground. Corte Madera currently has an unused allocation of about $250,000 being held by PG&E for undergrounding, too. Again, we believe the rational use of funds for PG&E is to underground once. Not to cut trees forever.
- "Its Too Disruptive in the Streets". It is true that it's hard to do work in our neighborhood given the narrow roads and limited access. However we believe a "one time approach" is best as it avoids tree crews for many years to come.
- "But A Fire Could Start Some Other Way". This is absolutely correct. There is no way to control for every situation. Our committee supports reasonable vegetation management and other fire safety and prevention measures. However we think 12-23' fire corridors involving 640-1,100 trees is overkill and would forever change the essential character of our hill. We also believe that a utility incited fire can be well controlled for, and that undergrounding is the way to do that. This eliminates what might be the biggest threat to the hill from a fire safety standpoint.
What Can You Do?
- Please sign our petition. To date, over 340 households have signed on.
- Please contact Maureen or Jordan through NextDoor if you'd like to help us more directly advocate or if you have other ideas to help. In the Christmas Tree Hill section, search "undergrounding" to find us and find more discussion of our efforts.