Opinion: Underground wires in Tilden Park are critical to keeping Berkeley safe from wildfire

Sparks from utility wires have caused 1,500 fires in California. Tilden Park has many feet of aging high-voltage PG&E electrical lines and transformers, which are still above ground. They are a hazard.

The East Bay hills and trails nearby are green and blooming this time of year, inviting visitors to come to enjoy and explore. A welcome season, typically. But lately, as the climate continues to change, and devastating wildfires seem more the norm rather than an anomaly, I am stuck on very real questions — when will wildfire strike? What can we all do to prevent the loss of lives and homes?

I feel lucky that our neighborhood, Park Hills, has focused on preparing for disasters. A large number of homes participate in the annual fire fuel chipper and debris bin program, we have an emergency preparedness group, run drills, interact with the Berkeley Fire Department and have dedicated neighbors willing to work in Tilden Park to clear brush in order to deter potential fires. Our neighborhood even helped fund having our own wires underground for safety back in the early 2000s.

Although we can’t see them from here, Tilden Park has many feet of aging high-voltage PG&E electrical lines and transformers, which are still above ground. These run the risk of being damaged and igniting due to falling branches, earthquake, equipment failure, or even vandalism.

The 2018 “Conceptual Study to Underground Utility Wires in Berkeley” listed undergrounding wires as a public safety issue, stating “Earthquakes and landslides can knock over utility poles creating a special hazard. In an earthquake, poles have a tendency to sway in opposite directions causing wires to snap and throw sparks. Some of California’s biggest fires have started because of live wires in contact with combustible fuel.” Eliminating this threat in Tilden Park, where the fuel load is so high, is critical.

“If we are serious about preventing a firestorm ignited by power lines, we must work quickly and aggressively with the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and PG&E to improve the high voltage lines that cross Wildcat Canyon and Tilden parks,” John Hitchen, a retired supervisor of park operations for the East Bay Regional Parks District, a resident of North Berkeley who has worked on fire prevention, disaster planning and vegetation management, said in a previous opinion piece published on Berkeleyside.

Many may not know that the same night the Tubbs fire started near Sonoma in October 2017, a PG&E transformer failed in Tilden Park causing a fire near the golf course. A worker at the golf course saw the flames and called the fire department right away. We are lucky for the immediate attention that saved Berkeley from the same possible fate Santa Rosa endured, but what if the transformer had failed with no one nearby to see it?

Faulty PG&E equipment has sparked at least 1,500 fires in California since 2014. Its leaders would be irresponsible not to do all they can to prevent a catastrophic fire in Berkeley. Undergrounding high voltage wires is a proactive investment in providing safety and reliable service to Berkeley residents. Although PG&E has filed for bankruptcy, the market value of the organization is about $11 billion and its shareholders are not entitled to a return unless PG&E can provide safe services. Utility customers in California currently pay about a dollar a month to finance a program intended to bury all power lines. This, along with an investment from The East Bay Regional Parks District and PG&E, could go far in protecting homes and lives in the East Bay.

While I’m not trying to argue that the above-ground wires and transformers are the only wildfire threat in our area, undergrounding them IS a controllable precaution that is being overlooked. A fire that starts in the park, when no one is around, has the potential to grow quickly, wiping out more than just the Berkeley Hills. A fire which started in the hills in 1923, burned all the way to Shattuck Avenue. There is much more fuel and density in Berkeley today than there was in 1923.

I urge the city of Berkeley and its residents to take immediate action to motivate PG&E and the East Bay Regional Parks Department to underground the power lines and transformers in Tilden Park and alleviate the threat of catastrophic wildfire.

Stephanie Wade is a 13-year District 6 resident, a marketing and communications professional, and former president of the Park Hills Homes Association.