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After a slew of disastrous wildfires, PG&E will bury 10,000 miles of California power lines

A back fire set by firefighters burns a hillside behind PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, Calif., on Oct. 26, 2019. (Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)

Pacific Gas & Electric announced Wednesday that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of California power lines in an attempt to prevent its equipment from sparking more wildfires after fatal blazes in recent years sunk the company into bankruptcy.

The project — which would probably cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to complete — is one example of how not only states and cities but also private companies are being pushed to take extreme measures as they grapple with the effects of a warming climate.

“We know that this is an extraordinary condition and an extraordinary time. It required extraordinary solutions,” Patti Poppe, chief executive of PG&E’s parent company, said at a news conference Wednesday.

But the project also makes sense for the company financially. PG&E reached a $13.5 billion settlement with California wildfire victims in 2019, including those with claims from the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise, Calif., killing at least 85 people and destroying 14,000 homes.

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On Sunday, PG&E said in a report to the state utilities commission that its equipment may have started the Dixie Fire, which is burning in Butte County, near the town of Paradise. As of Wednesday evening, the fire had burned more than 91,000 acres since igniting July 13.

PG&E has already said it would bury the power lines it is rebuilding in Paradise and in the burn area of last summer’s North Complex Fire.

At the news conference Wednesday, executives likened the project to the Marshall Plan (the post World War II recovery program for western Europe) and touted it as “one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of our state.” The company estimated it would cost $15 billion to $30 billion, the Associated Press reported. But PG&E exited bankruptcy in 2020 with more debt than it had when it entered bankruptcy, and the 16 million Californians who rely on the company for power probably will end up shouldering the cost of the expansive new project.

PG&E said the plan would help customers not only by reducing the risk of wildfires but also by decreasing the need for power shut-offs, which the company says it uses as a last resort during conditions that could create a blaze sparked by its equipment. But the shut-offs were already derided as primitive and maddening by customers, who pay some of the highest rates for electricity in the country.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has in the past highlighted putting power lines underground as one of the investments in its infrastructure that PG&E had been lacking. Newsom said in 2019 that he would “not forgive them for not making the kind of investments in their equipment, hardening and undergrounding and anticipating this new reality” — the effects of climate change — “of which they have had ample time to anticipate.” A representative for Newsom did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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The 10,000 miles to be buried are among the 25,000 miles of aboveground “overhead” lines that the company operates in areas that are deemed to be a high fire threat.

Recently, crews working to put power lines underground at the site of the North Complex Fire completed 1,250 feet in a single day, which Joe Wilson, PG&E’s vice president for the North Valley and Sierra region, hailed as a “record day.”

If crews undertaking the new project maintain that rate without any days off, they would complete fewer than 90 miles in a year.

Adam Wright, PG&E’s chief operating officer, said company hopes to eventually be able to put 1,000 miles of lines underground each year.

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How to stay safe: It’s better to prepare for extreme heat before you’re in it. Here’s our guide to bracing for a heat wave, tips for staying cool even if you don’t have air conditioning, and what to know about animal safety during extreme heat. Traveling during a heat wave isn’t ideal, but here’s what to do if you are.

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Tell the Post: What questions do you have about extreme heat, wildfires, droughts or other climate-related topics?