'We're just worried this is a firetrap:' Oakland Hills neighbors urge PG&E to bury power lines

Neighbors in one Oakland Hills neighborhood are worried they could lose their homes or their lives if power lines are not buried underground soon.

More than 2,200 people in Montclair have signed a petition urging PG&E to underground the lines fearful another firestorm could occur like the one that killed more than two dozen people and burned thousands of homes in 1991.

"We’re just worried this is a firetrap," said Cynthia Harrison-Barbera who grew up in the neighborhood. "We think the right thing to do is to bring these lines down in a neighborhood like this that is so risky."

PG&E said it is prioritizing moving power lines underground in the highest fire-risk communities.

Two years ago the utility announced a plan to put 10,000 miles of its lines underground. It aims to have 2,300 miles completed by 2026.

But Montclair is not included because PG&E said there are power lines in higher-risk areas in need of greater attention.


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Neighbors said with previous fires in the hills and public safety power shutoffs a permanent solution is needed to prevent wildfires.

"PG&E is aware that this is a huge issue," said neighbor Douglas Harman. "Turning off our power and making our grid unreliable here to make sure we’re safe is not the total answer."

PG&E said it has met with community members to discuss wildfire risk-reduction and invite their feedback.

Cal Fire considers the East Bay Hills a "very high fire severity zone" – the most vulnerable and areas of greatest risk for catastrophic outcomes.

"We certainly look at all the high fire risk areas," said PG&E Spokesperson Matt Nauman. "And then we do the risk modeling and just see what eliminates the most risk."

That risk modeling is what Harrison-Barbera said is flawed because the main determining factors are potential fire fuel or vegetation and weather conditions.

"It keeps all of us up at night," she said. "When we have warm winds and weather is really hot, we are worried every single day."

The crisscrossing lines and nearby high voltage transmission lines in Montclair are also of concern to the City of Oakland.

"To reduce 99% of the risk of power lines is to put them underground," said Deputy City Administrator and Chief Resilience Officer Joe DeVries. "We have to look at the risk of if a fire happens, what’s next? How do we get people out? How do we get emergency responder in? So for us, we have to look at the whole thing not just what started it."

DeVries said PG&E did not take into account population density or the narrowness of the streets in Montclair. He has written state regulators in hopes of forcing the power company to bury the lines sooner rather than later.

PG&E said it is changing how it determines where lines should be buried. As of this year, the risk model will include factors including emergency crews getting in and residents getting out.

"We’ll be looking at the risk modeling and see where other communities fit in," Nauman said. "It’s something we evolve every year."

By the end of 2023, PG&E will have to submit its 10-year undergrounding plan to state regulators but has not yet determined if Montclair will be included.

PG&E said since 2018, it has completed two overhead system hardening projects and one undergrounding project in Montclair. It has also installed devices on power lines to target safety-related shutoffs, and safety settings to automatically turnoff power if a fault is detected.

But those who live in Montclair say burying the power lines is the only safe fix.

"Unless you’re going to move this entire neighborhood, it just has to get done," Harman said. "Get over here and let’s get started."

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