CMUA Hosts Second-Annual Wildfire Mitigation Forum
Several publicly owned electric utilities discussed their experiences, successes, and challenges.
Friday, December 8, 2023
by: Justine Brown

Section: CMUA News

CMUA successfully hosted its second-annual Wildfire Mitigation Forum on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, to provide publicly owned electric utility members statewide the opportunity to share ideas about how to mitigate wildfire threats. 
CMUA Executive Director Barry Moline opened the three-hour session— which was held at SMUD headquarters in Sacramento — by reminding everyone that the event’s goal was to learn from one another. “There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to our publicly owned and consumer-owned electric utilities and electric cooperatives,” said Moline. “We’re all unique in our communities, size, and geography across the state. Nevertheless, there are lessons and activities we can learn from each other that can make our operations better when it comes to mitigating wildfires.”
During the opening panel, leaders from several publicly owned electric utilities discussed their experiences, successes, and challenges around wildfire mitigation. Randy Howard, general manager of the Northern California Power Agency, discussed how his agency is working with Congress, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, to improve mitigation strategies on federal land, including providing fixes to liability issues, permitting processes, and efficient timber removal.
Eric Brown, T&D manager of grid assets for vegetation management at SMUD, discussed wildfire risk reduction and reliability improvements on private and federal lands. Brown talked about how SMUD uses LiDAR, which is accurate down to six to 10 centimeters, to improve the efficiency of timber removal and detect the most significant risks. “LIDAR helps us right-size our inspections and target our dollars because every one of the LIDAR data points is geospatially tracked,” he said. “You can navigate to every single one of them. It’s also unbiased, objective data that’s easy for anyone to understand.”
Shawn Avery, program supervisor at the Redding Electric Utility, discussed vegetation management, pole wraps, and community engagement as well as his experiences during the Carr Fire, which impacted 1,079 homes in the Redding area. Avery also showed a video demonstrating how Redding uses its task force of hundreds of goats to aid its brush-clearing efforts.
Paul Hauser, general manager for the Trinity Public Utilities District in Weaverville, Calif., talked about the utility’s experience with and difficulties of widening right of ways in dense stands of forest, most of which pass through federally managed land; specifically, he outlined how it may take at least six years to get all the necessary permits for, and overcome litigation related to, Trinity’s Wildfire Risk Reduction, Reliability, and Asset Protection Project (WRAP) program to widen right of ways. Hauser also explained the challenges associated with California’s “strict liability” standard and how wildfire insurance has become prohibitively expensive for Trinity PUD.

Fred Barvarz, transmission and distribution manager for Anaheim Public Utilities, discussed how the utility is undertaking wildfire undergrounding projects to enhance safety. Anaheim has also invested in six stations of wildfire cameras and weather monitoring equipment to track wildfire location and progress.
A separate panel discussion featured presentations from two investor owned utilities: Liberty Utilities and Bear Valley Electric Service. Paul Marconi, President of Bear Valley, talked about the investments his small investor owned utility has made in sophisticated modeling technology that provides a threat score for every segment of a circuit. The system automatically responds as the threat level increases, all the way up to a Public Safety Power Shutoff. Liberty Utilities, which serves mountainous regions, talked about its grid hardening efforts, which include hanging covered conductor (requiring 100% pole replacement; Bear Valley is also doing covered conductor installation and is replacing about 30% of its poles in the process).  Finally, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) provided an overview of the Wildfire Forecast and Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which was established by legislation three years ago and provides a range of fire weather-related products that can assist POUs in their wildfire mitigation activities. The Center may be a particularly helpful resource for smaller POUs with more limited budgets.

More than 100 attendees attended the forum — either in-person or on Zoom. Notably, members of the state Wildfire Safety Advisory Board, including Chair Jessica Block, Chris Porter and Tim Haines, were there in the room, and made supportive comments about the forum and publicly owned utilities’ ongoing efforts to find innovative ways to combat wildfire threats. One of the Board’s functions is to review publicly owned utilities’ annual Wildfire Mitigation Plans.

Download and view the speakers’ presentations here.


Justine Brown is a freelance writer who resides in Northern California.