Residents in Oakland Hills neighborhood 'take exception' to PG&E not undergrounding powerlines

Melanie Woodrow Image
Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Oakland Hills neighborhood left off PG&E's underground powerlines plan
With wildfire worries on their minds, residents in the Montclair neighborhood are "struggling to understand PG&E's logic" behind leaving them off of a 10,000-mile underground powerlines program.

OAKLAND, Calif (KGO) -- More than 1,300 people have signed a petition asking PG&E to underground power lines in Oakland Hills' Montclair neighborhood.

Right now, the neighborhood is not part of PG&E's 10,000-mile underground program.

"I was born right here in this area," said Montclair resident Cynthia Harrison Barbera.

She says her family has lived in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland Hills for 70 years.

"We worry about fire risk every single day," said Harrison Barbera.

The 1991 Oakland Hills fire is a painful memory for many in the area.

VIDEO: Group demands Gov. Newsom hold PG&E accountable for fires, blackouts, wild rates

Reclaim Our Power held a protest at the PG&E conference center as the utility company held a wildfire mitigation conference with Newsom's office.

"Well it would be a catastrophe if this happened again," she continued.

It's why Harrison Barbera started a petition asking PG&E to underground these power lines. She says she had more than 1,300 signatures in less than 3 weeks.

"For us, fire is a matter of life and death," said Harrison Barbera.

PG&E says its undergrounding program is aimed at making the electric system safer by prioritizing undergrounding in areas where it can have the greatest impact on reducing wildfire risk. Montclair did not make the list.

"We just were struggling to understand PG&E's logic behind that," said Montclair resident Doug Harmon.

Doug Harmon built his home and others here.

He says Montclair's proximity to high-voltage transmission lines in addition to distribution and service lines that cross the neighborhood is especially concerning.

"Very old infrastructure, very high voltage," said Harmon.

"We thought we would be a shoe-in," he continued.

VIDEO: What will CA's wildfire season look like? Here's when it's expected to peak, what to know

California's 2023 wildfire season expected to be average despite barrage of atmospheric rivers, will peak for Northern CA in August into September.

A spokesperson with PG&E tells the ABC7 News I-Team it met with community members to discuss wildfire risk-reduction work in the neighborhood and continues to invite their feedback.

PG&E says since 2018 it's completed two overhead system hardening projects and one undergrounding project in Montclair.

The utility says they have also made sure trees are a safe distance from power lines, inspected electric equipment, and installed 14 sectionalizing devices to better target shutoffs and a high-definition camera to monitor and respond to wildfires. PG&E says it has also added three weather stations to better predict severe weather and installed enhanced power line safety settings that can automatically turn off power if a fault that may lead to a wildfire ignition is detected.

"They know they have a problem, that's why they're doing all these things," said Harmon.

PG&E tells the I-Team its undergrounding plans do not include Montclair because there are powerlines in higher-risk areas.

"You have to understand that this is one of the most densely populated high fire risk areas in the state of California and if they're not seeing that then their risk model is not complete," Harmon continued.

MORE: Oakland residents express frustrations with PG&E updates after going several days with no power

Residents here also point to a limited number of ways to get in and out of the neighborhood.

"This is a fire trap," said Harrison Barbera.

They say during a meeting with PG&E reps they were told PG&E's risk model does not factor in egress, but in its statement to ABC7 News PG&E said it uses a team of local fire safety specialists with knowledge of local conditions including ingress and egress considerations to validate its risk model outputs.

"Prove it," said Harmon.

Oakland Deputy City Administrator Joe DeVries coordinates the wildfire prevention working group for Oakland.

"Undergrounding is a big, long expensive process. We were told that this area wasn't a high priority area and we take exception to that," said DeVries.

"I mean honestly if none of those wires were above ground, none of them would release a spark that would cause a wildfire," he continued.

Since 2017, PG&E has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires.

Its 2023 wildfire mitigation plan doesn't sit right with Montclair residents who have seen what could happen.

"I do not want to have to tell the story to my kids or grandkids again that we knew what had happened, had a perfect example, and not done anything about it," said Harmon.

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