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All The Things Being Done To Put Malibu Back Together Again After The Woolsey Fire

Edison workers receive their orders before heading out across Malibu to replace damaged power lines. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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Wildfires destroy a lot more than homes. Wooden power poles, PVC water pipes and water mains all take a beating. So utility workers are now swarming the burnt terrain to return everything to working order, which takes a whole lot of effort and resources.


Southern California Edison Fire Management Officer Troy Whitman said the company 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:

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

The fire's still burning, so Edison hasn't finished finding what needs fixing. But in the meantime it's started phase three. So far, that means replacing roughly a thousand power poles, and most of the wires that 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. All of the equipment and hardware on each pole is specific to that location, so packages are created for each one of those locations," Whitman said.

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

Whitman said Edison has been using new insulated wires, like it started using on Catalina. They'll be much less likely to spark when a pole falls down or when debris hits the wire. That could mean fewer fires.

Edison workers uncoil new, insulated wire to replace the fallen power lines in Malibu. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

"You can touch it with your hand and you're insulated from the electricity flowing through the wire," he said. "On this rebuild we have so much wire to replace. This is a good opportunity for us to do Malibu as well."

While there's still a lot of work left to get done in Malibu, neighborhoods in Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Westlake are pretty much good to go on the electricity side.

Good news, since a big part of the problem with the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District there had to do with not having enough power.

Workers repair a broken water main after the Woolsey Fire. Photo courtesy of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District covers everything north of Malibu, south of the 118 Freeway, and between Ventura County and L.A. City. That means about two-thirds of its service area burned. General Manager Dave Pedersen said that overwhelmed the district's resources.

"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 some residents being put under a boil water notice, 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, there wasn't the electricity needed to pump 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 boil water notice.

As of this week the water district was still in emergency response mode, but Pedersen said 500 residents on the boil water notice could expect it to be lifted by the end of the week.


Pedersen estimates it could be six months.

"We're beginning to switch into the recovery process," he said. "We recover all the major facilities and restore normal operations first so we serve our customers...then we need to go back and do some of the more detailed repair."

Edison's Whitman said 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 there's still parts of Malibu they haven't been able to get into to assess yet.

"But we're working feverishly to replace the poles we do know about."

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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