Utilities scramble to replace power poles, water pipes in wake of California wildfires

MALIBU, Calif. – The recent California wildfires have destroyed far more than homes. Wooden power poles, PVC water pipes and water mains all are taking a beating. So utility workers now are scouring scorched terrain across the state to return everything to working order, which takes a great deal of effort and resources.

Southern California Edison is one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., providing service to 15 million people in central and Southern California.

Edison’s fire management officer, Troy Whitman, said the utility has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and the number is only growing: “It really takes a small army to support the operation.”

When a wildfire hits, Edison handles it in three phases:

Emergency response, when workers clear out any hazards so evacuees and officials can get where they need to go quickly.
Damage assessment, which means driving (and in some cases, helicoptering) around to see what’s broken.
Restoration, which is the process of replacing everything that was damaged.

Because the fires are still burning, utilities haven’t finished finding what needs fixing. But so far, Edison needs to replace roughly a thousand power poles in Malibu alone, and most of the high-voltage wires they carry.

But it turns out not all poles are created equal.

“Each one of these pole locations has to be engineered for the pole height and the pole strength,” Whitman said. “All of the equipment and hardware on each pole is specific to that location, so packages are created for each one of those locations.”

Fixing the poles along the Pacific Coast Highway and the major canyons is as easy as driving up to where they fell. But in some of Malibu’s smaller, more winding roads, it means digging into the ground by hand, then using a helicopter to set the pole in place.

Whitman said Edison has been using wire with new insulation, which will be less likely to spark when a pole falls down or when debris hits the wire. That could mean fewer fires.

“You can touch it with your hand and you’re insulated from the electricity flowing through the wire,” he said.

Southern California Edison says it has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and more will be needed. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)


Using all that water for fighting wildfires stresses local water systems, too. In the water district north of Malibu, about two-thirds of its service area burned, which overwhelmed the district’s resource, said Dave Pederson, general manager of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

“Public water systems are not designed to fight wildfires, they’re designed primarily for a structure fire, and to meet people’s domestic and home needs,” he said. “The system does its best to accommodate the firefighting efforts put on the system, but it can only do so much.”

It resulted in warnings to some residents to boil water because bacteria may have leached into the system.

But that wasn’t just because of the high demand from firefighters as they diverted water to their hoses. The fire also melted PVC pipes and broke water mains, and when the power went out, it shut down the pumps that move the water.

“Normally when there’s a leak in a water system … the only thing that happens is the water leaks out so the system is really safe from contamination,” Pedersen said.

But with the drop in pressure from so many demands, contaminates could leak in wherever the pipes were broken. Hence the notice to boil water (which was lifted Friday, Nov. 16).


Whitman said that, 25 years into his job, he sees the fires getting worse, so it’s a good time for safer power lines.

“The last few years, everyone has seen the increase in fire activity, the rate of spread of these fires, the devastation. I see in my job that things are changing.”

As for an end date, Whitman said the extent of the damage still hasn’t been determined because crews still aren’t able to get to some parts of Malibu.

“But we’re working feverishly to replace the poles we do know about.”