Oakland city council urges PG&E to bury power lines in Montclair

The Oakland City Council approved a resolution Tuesday urging Pacific Gas & Electric and state regulators to review why Montclair and other neighborhoods weren't selected for moving electric lines underground.

PG&E has a goal to reduce 70% of high fire-risk areas across California by burying 10,000 miles of lines over the next several years, but Oakland is not on the list.

"The fact that not a single mile is in their plan right now is telling that they need to investigate this further," said Councilmember Janani Ramachandran who introduced the legislation. "We’re in a risky situation."

Cal Fire says Montclair and other neighborhoods in the Oakland Hills are in a "very high-fire severity zone" because of dry vegetation, large trees and exposure to wind. Narrow streets and limited access to escape routes increase the change that a wildfire there will become catastrophic.

Neighbors, who are worried they could lose their homes or their lives if an above ground power line sparks a fire, are rallying to get those lines buried underground.

"It takes a disaster before any change occurs and we as a neighborhood are hoping that won’t be the case this time," said Andrew Picard of Montclair. "Put everything underground. It just makes more sense."

More than 2,750 people have signed a petition demanding PG&E to underground the lines fearful another firestorm could occur like the one that killed 25 people and burned 3,800 homes in 1991.

That petition is what sparked the legislation as a matter of public safety.

"This is not just an Oakland Hills specific issue," Ramachandran said. "If a wildfire does happen in the Oakland Hills, the entire city will be impacted in some way or another so this is something that impacts all of our community. I really hope PG&E takes this seriously."

PG&E told KTVU Tuesday it is prioritizing moving power lines underground in the highest fire-risk communities, but Montclair is not included in plans through 2026 because there are power lines in higher-risk areas.

The utility also said undergrounding is just one of the measures it uses to reduce risk. Replacing power poles, installing enhanced power line safety settings and vegetation management are a few other strategies, a spokesperson said.

But residents say narrow streets, large trees, exposure to wind, and limited access into and out of the hillside neighborhoods only increase the risk of a deadly wildfire.

"We want to see a more rigorous assessment of the risk we think should be done considering the effects of this area -- the proximity and issues right here in Montclair that are affecting so many homes and put so many people at risk," said resident Dick Buckingham.

Just last fall, Buckingham and his neighbors had a scare when electric lines attached to a power pole across from his home started sparking and arcing.

"I got a call that there was clicking, there were lights flickering in the house and had this crackling noise outside," he said. "Whenever there’s something that happens in the area, you’re on edge."

PG&E said it has met with Montclair residents to discuss wildfire risk-reduction work. The utility said it is evolving its risk model to include escape routes in its next version. 

"It’s a disaster waiting to happen," Picard said. "It happened before. It’s going to happen again and everybody knows there’s something that can be done about this and it should be done."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at  brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU