Toppled Trancas Pole Raises More Safety Concerns

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Trancas Power Line Down

It was practically a recipe for disaster: the Santa Ana Winds raged at 50 MPH in dry, 90-degree weather last Wednesday afternoon in Malibu as a massive utility pole toppled over and blocked Trancas Canyon Road, trapping northern Trancas Canyon residents in their homes for hours without electricity.

No fires broke out, likely because the pole did not hit any brush areas. It was eventually lifted and replaced by a Southern California Edison crane, relieving about 72 customers who were without power as a result of the 10:23 a.m. fall on Wednesday. Power was fully restored later in the afternoon.

But nearly a week later, questions remain over whether the pole in question, located just north of Trancas Canyon Park, could have been overloaded, and whether its replacement is still bearing a heavy burden. 

“Had the pole landed in brush … there is little doubt a fire would have burned through the brush and reached nearby houses in minutes,” said Mayor Skylar Peak in a letter sent to state regulators on Monday.

During the subsequent emergency repair process, the pole appears to have been “tied off” with rope, which has Peak worried.

“Frequently in our area, we see such emergency repairs go unrepaired for months or years,” Peak wrote.

The letter, addressed to California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Michael Peevey, outlines numerous safety concerns over how much weight the toppled pole had taken on and whether the state plans on launching an investigation into the incident. Peak is asking for specific numbers showing how much equipment the pole was holding and whether its replacement is up to par.

Based on a simple visual assessment, Peak noted that the pole’s attachments are “sagging dangerously, and the distance to the next poles in either direction seems very long.” 

Inspection results still a mystery

In a settlement with the CPUC last October, Edison agreed to pay $37.5 million, with $17 million pledged to assess its poles in Malibu Canyon and the surrounding Malibu area. The settlement was a result of the company’s role in the 2007 Malibu Canyon Fire, which began when three poles jointly owned by Edison and other companies snapped in high winds and sparked nearby brush. The fire burned 3,836 acres, 36 vehicles and 14 structures, including Castle Kashan and the Malibu Presbyterian Church. 

It’s unclear whether this Trancas pole had been inspected as part of the Edison agreement before it fell last week. Another problem, according to Peak and activist Hans Laetz, is that the state has kept results of the Malibu pole safety assessments under wraps. 

In his letter to the state, Peak asks that the report be released for the public to understand the extent and results of the inspections.

Could Edison have gotten there sooner?

Another thing worrying city officials and residents is Edison’s lag time in lifting the fallen Trancas pole last week, especially amid ominous fire conditions. As the pole lay blocking the road for more than four hours, City Manager Jim Thorsen had to order his Public Works Department to potentially use a backhoe and lift the pole. Normally, the city does not touch hot/live power wires, but Thorsen said the hot, dry fire conditions made him want to take the action.

“In this case I don’t want to have anything happen during high winds,” Thorsen said last week.

Edison eventually brought its own crane to the scene the lift the pole.