PG&E’s Lengthy Record of Starting Wildfires, and What the Company Is Doing to Change It

The power utility’s record includes two of the most destructive wildfires in California history.

PUBLISHED SEP 30, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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A firefighter battles the Dixie Fighter, a massive blaze started by PG&E equipment.

A firefighter battles the Dixie Fighter, a massive blaze started by PG&E equipment.   National Interagency Fire Center / Flickr   Public Domain

At about 10 minutes before 7 o’clock in the morning on July 13, 2021, an outage detection system at Pacific Gas and Electric—the largest utility company in the state, with 16 million customers over a 70,000 square mile area in Northern and Central California—picked up a power loss on one of its lines. The problem was happening at Cresta Dam, along the north fork of Feather River off of Highway 70 in Plumas County.

It took another two hours for PG&E to confirm that there was indeed trouble on the Bucks Creek power line, number 1101, a line that runs across the river and into the surrounding forest. The Bucks Creek line is ranked by PG&E itself as the 11th-most dangerous line in its vast system of more than 100,000 miles of power lines. An operator at PG&E’s Rock Creek Switching Center informed the company’s Northern Control Center that power to the dam was out.

A “roving operator” who investigated further reported that the lights were out in a nearby tunnel along Highway 70, and at the Cresta Dam service center. Another hour-and-a-half went by before the power company sent a lineman, or “troubleman,” to check out the site of the outage to find out what went wrong. He arrived at the dam about half-past noon. He saw a fuse hanging from a utility pole on the other side of the river. 

Two months later a federal judge, William Alsup of the Northern District of California, asked the worker why he didn’t simply shut off the power right away, when he saw there was a problem. But according to a Los Angeles Times report, the troubleman said that did not see any sign of a fire, or anything that could be causing one. And thanks to narrow mountain roads and a road closure on the way there, he could not get to the hanging fuse until around four in the afternoon, a full nine hours after the first report from the dam.

That’s when he saw the fire.

Second-Largest Wildfire in State History Is Still Burning

He also saw a Douglas Fir tree leaning against a power line. In his statement in court,  the troubleman (whose name was concealed by the judge) said that he grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck and slid about 80 feet down a hill where he tried to put out the fire himself, as he waited for Cal Fire to respond after he radioed in the emergency. 

A Cal Fire aerial unit showed up around 5:30, an hour after the troubleman got there, and a four-man firefighting crew arrived at 7 p.m. But the fire was already out of control. The Dixie Fire would grow into the second largest wildfire in California history, surpassed only by the August Complex Fire of just one year earlier, which burned more than one million acres in Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake and Colusa counties.

As of September 30, the Dixie Fire was still burning. The flames were closing in on a million acres burned, and had destroyed more than 1,300 houses and other buildings, including most of the small town of Greenville. The fire was listed as 95 percent contained

As massive and destructive as the Dixie Fire was, PG&E’s involvement in setting it off might be easier to understand if it was just a freak accident, a rare occurrence. But it was not. Just a year earlier, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and was hit with a $3.5 million dollar fine for starting the 2018 Camp Fire—the deadliest ever in California—which resulted from a similar equipment failure. 

A 100-Year Old Metal Hook Starts Deadly Camp Fire

The Butte County District Attorney found that a metal hook that was at least 100 years old snapped and sent a live power wire swinging into the heavily wooded area below, sparking the fire. Winds in the area bent the hook, causing considerable wear and tear over the last century. The metal fatigue was visible for at least the last 50 years, the DA concluded, and “scores of PG&E employees should have been in a position to observe the wear. However, none of the employees documented the wear.”

The DA’s findings echoed those in a 700-page report by the California Public Utilities Commission. But the Camp Fire, though with its 86 fatalities the most tragic, was far from the end of PG&E’s connection to wildfires in California. In 2021, a tree falling onto power lines was suspected of causing the Fly Fire, also in Plumas County, which merged with the Dixie Fire to help create that massive inferno.

Back in January 2021, more downed wires appeared to the cause of the smaller Freedom Fire in Santa Cruz County. In fact, by mid-August, faulty PG&E equipment was suspected to be the cause of 62 fires in the state in 2021, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. Most of those fires turned out to be minor, less than one acre. Five, however, spread over at least 10 acres.

But even the 2021 totals were just scratching the surface. In 2019, a Wall Street Journal investigation linked PG&E to at least 1,500 California wildfires. In 2017, PG&E, according to the Journal report, caused 17 major fires that burned more than 190,000 acres, destroyed 3,256 structures and most heartbreaking of all, killed 22 people.

Power and Wildfire

Other power companies also cause forest fires. According to data compiled by the CPUC and obtained by the Sacramento Bee, the state’s other two largest utilities are also behind several hundred fires. But neither causes fires at the prolific rate of PG&E. From 2014 to 2017, according to the data, Southern California Edison equipment ignited 347 fires, a rate of two per 100,000 customers. San Diego Gas and Electric was behind 110 fires, or three per 100,000 customers.

Over that same span, PG&E, which operates in heavily forested areas, caused 1,552 fires, 10 per 100,000 customers according to the CPUC data. 

Corporations, of course, cannot be sentenced to prison. But Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems, after hearing the company’s 84 manslaughter guilty pleas for its role starting the Camp Fire, said that “if these crimes were attributed to an actual human person rather than a corporation, the anticipated sentence based on the applicable statutes to which the defendant has pleaded guilty would be 90 years to be served in state prison.”

‘Dog-Eat-Dog Capitalism’

How can one company be responsible for so many fires, including two of the most destructive in state history? And what is PG&E doing to make itself safer?

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, described the problem as “dog-eats-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement. It’s about focusing on shareholders and dividends over you and members of the public.”

A 2017 report prepared for the CPUC by Northstar Consulting Group, said that PG&E’s corporate culture had “only recently” begun to address safety issues. The report criticized the company for “the absence of a comprehensive strategy” aimed at increasing safety measures, and said that even though PG&E “is committed to safety and efforts have been made to reduce incidents,” the company’s efforts have mainly come in response to safety incidents, rather than creating a “comprehensive enterprise-wide approach to addressing  safety.”

What PG&E actually did do in response to the Camp Fire and other fires that it caused was to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January of 2019, to shield itself from lawsuits by victims of its fires. A year later the company was allowed to come out of the bankruptcy proceedings, establishing a $5.4 billion fund to pay settlements to the victims and the families of people who died in PG&E-caused fires.

“There was very much a focus on the bottom line over everything: ‘What are the earnings we can report this quarter?’” former CPUC Commissioner  Mike Florio told The New York Times in 2019. “And things really got squeezed on the maintenance side.”

Though PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson promised that the company would emerge “reimagined” from the bankruptcy, a Los Angeles Times report saw little progress, saying “it’s unclear there’s anything fundamentally different about the utility.”

While the company has taken, or at least said it will take, some measures to make its power lines safer, the main step it has taken is simply to shut off power under threatening conditions, which understandably left customers and elected officials frustrated and angry. 

San Diego G&E Sets Standard. Will PG&E Follow?

In late July, shortly after admitting its role in igniting the Dixie Fire, PG&E announced that it would bury 10,000 miles of power lines underground. But it gave no timetable for the project, nor did the company say how it would pay for the safety project. Earlier the same month,  the company asked the state to approve an 18 percent rate hike for its customers in order to pay for new safety upgrades.

Beyond shutting off power to customers and then asking them to pay more, PG&E has outlined a number of proposed safety steps, in a 2018 announced expansion of its “Community Wildfire Safety Program.” Among those measures: adding new weather stations and high-definition cameras in high-risk areas; stepping up inspections of equipment for safety problems; installing stronger utility poles and insulating wires over 7,000 miles of the riskiest power lines; and replacing old equipment.

According to a New York Times report, however, PG&E needs to follow the example set by its counterpart in southern California, San Diego Gas and Electric. That utility already has more than 100 high-def cameras recording video in risky areas, along with 177 weather stations to provide advance warning of conditions that could lead to fire. 

The San Diego company also uses satellite technology to assess the dryness of grass around power lines, and when all of the data it constantly collects indicate that the conditions are right for a fire, SDG&E will temporarily cut off power in the danger zones.

PG&E says it is attempting to implement at least some similar programs. But in 2019, the company reported that it had completed only one-third of its promised work trimming trees along power lines, which reduces the chance of vegetation falling on the lines and causing more fires.

“They have simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public,” Newsom told The New York Times in 2019. “They cannot be trusted.”

More Criminal Charges in 2021

In the meantime, as residents of northern and central California wait for PG&E to show that they can, in fact, be trusted, the beat goes on in court. On September 24, 2021, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett slapped PG&E with more indictments, including for charges of  involuntary manslaughter and seven other felonies, as well as 20 misdemeanors, over the 2020 Zogg Fire. Igniting near the Oregon state line, the fire took 16 days to contain, burned more than 56,000 acres and killed four people.

The fire started, investigators concluded, when a tree fell on a PG&E power line. The company knew the 100-foot-tall tree was a danger to its lines and even marked it as a hazard, but never got around to cutting it down, the state investigators say.

The Shasta County indictments were actually the second round of charges PG&E had faced in 2021. In April, Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch charged the company with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors over its actions in the 2019 Kincade Fire, which fortunately killed no one, but caused four injuries to firefighters, burned almost 78,000 acres in the wine country, and destroyed or damaged 434 structures including one entire winery.

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