A web of power lines strung around a wooden pole, juxtaposed with the blue sky.
A cluster of power lines in Oakland. Credit: Florence Middleton

The Oakland City Council has joined a chorus of voices pleading with PG&E to address a fire risk dangling above homes in the city’s parched hills. 

Last Tuesday, the council unanimously voted to ask the utility company to include the Montclair District and parts of East Oakland in its plans to bury electrical power lines. PG&E equipment, including power lines, has allegedly been responsible for over 30 wildfires in California in recent years, killing residents and destroying thousands of homes. In 2021, PG&E unveiled a plan to bury 10,000 miles of overhead power lines in fire-risk areas, which the company claims will reduce the risk of fires by 70%.

Oakland’s hills seem like an obvious candidate for this work, but PG&E has not included several high-risk neighborhoods. This includes the Montclair District, which is adjacent to the area that burned in the 1991 Oakland hills fire. This conflagration killed 25 people and razed 3,800 homes, resulting in the equivalent of $3 billion worth of damage in one day. PG&E recently moved to Oakland and the company is in the process of purchasing its headquarters.

According to the City Council, the Montclair District is designated by CalFire as a “Very High Fire Risk Area,” which is the most severe designation the state assigns. The city has made a similar assessment for Montclair and several East Oakland neighborhoods located in the city’s hillier parts. A June memo from the California Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety noted that PG&E’s undergrounding plan may leave some of the state’s highest risk areas unprotected. PG&E is supposed to come up with remedies for the issues identified in the memo before the summer is over.  

In neighboring Berkeley, which also has fire-prone hills, the city allocated money to underground its PG&E lines several years ago, with officials citing the risk of downed power lines blocking evacuation routes in the hills, among other concerns. 

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran, who represents Montclair, said she hopes PG&E will prioritize Oakland, noting that the city has a higher population density than many other high risk fire areas in California. 

“A huge part of it really just comes down to taking down dead and dying trees from our parks and close to residential areas, and those efforts are very expensive,” Ramachandran said. 

Ramachandran recently asked her colleagues to restore two positions in the city’s tree services division to address the backlog of critical park and tree maintenance. Oakland cut this program nearly in half during the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the city has focused on tree trimming only in emergencies. Ramachandran said her office is also holding a virtual town hall at the end of August with the state insurance commissioner to discuss how residents living in wildfire areas can get coverage, among other issues. 

Several residents at last week’s City Council meeting stressed the importance of getting PG&E’s help. Cynthia Harrison Barbera noted that over 2,700 residents have signed a petition asking PG&E to place power lines underground. A man who spoke after her said residents want to be cooperative, but if a tragedy happens, they may have to fight.

Some Oaklanders are so concerned about the dry conditions in the hills that they’ve tried to take matters into their own hands. Friends of Joaquin Miller Park, a nonprofit that takes care of the sprawling parkland, has tried to clear small acacia, an Australian invasive species, but the city ordered them to stop because residents can’t use chainsaws or power tools in the parks. The group is currently waiting to see if they qualify for grant money from Cal Fire to help them remove dead and dying vegetation—the stuff that starts fires.  

Resident Douglas Harmon said PG&E is an outlier in its assessment of the fire risk in the Oakland hills, noting that Oakland’s government, Cal Fire, the California Public Utilities Commission, and FEMA have all designated the area as being very high risk.

“How is it that PG&E is the only entity that I know on this planet that does not understand the risk or know the risk?” Harmon said.

PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian said the company has met with customers in the Montclair community to discuss wildfire risk-reduction work and continues to invite feedback.

“Undergrounding is just one of the measures we take to reduce wildfire risk,” Sarkissian said. Since 2018, PG&E has taken several measures to protect Montclair specifically.

These include trimming vegetation near powerlines, inspecting electric equipment, installing 14 devices on power lines that help the company better target safety-related shutoffs, and adding three weather stations to better predict and respond to severe weather, among other things.

Sarkissian added that PG&E hasn’t made undergrounding power lines in Montclair a priority because there are other parts of the utilities’ service area where the risk of a fire is much higher. The company has approximately 25,000 miles of overhead electric power lines in areas designated “high fire-risk.”

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.