PG&E scrutinized in deadly Camp Fire
Problem at power line near origin of state’s most destructive blaze
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. told state regulators Friday that a high-voltage power line near the origin point of the devastating Camp Fire experienced a problem just before the first flames appeared.
The public utility, already facing billions in potential liability for earlier wildfires, is under scrutiny from regulators for possibly causing the latest fire, which broke out early Thursday. That same day, PG&E canceled plans to shut off power as a precaution against fires in parts of Butte County, where the fire is burning.
In a filing to the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E stated that it noted a power outage on the line at about 6:15 a.m. Thursday — about 20 minutes before the fire was reported.
Christopher Chow, a commission spokesman, said the agency would incorporate the incident report into its investigation into electric infrastructure in the fire area.
PG&E sent an aerial team to the area Thursday and noticed damage to a transmission tower on the affected line, according to the filing. The tower is about a mile from Pulga, one of several small towns in the region affected by the Camp Fire.
That day, PG&E announced it would not turn off power in eight Northern California counties, as it had previously warned it might do in response to dangerous weather conditions. In October, PG&E cut off power to 60,000 customers in 12 counties as a preventive measure.
The utility has historically resisted such measures, saying power cutoffs pose other risks
for residents and first responders, such as shutting down hospitals and fire stations. But in December it began considering adopting shut-offs as part of its wildfire response, and in March, it made switching off power lines part of a formal plan.
In a statement, PG&E spokesman Jason King said that the cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined. Fire officials also have said that the cause remains under investigation.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve,” he said. “PG&E has provided an initial electric incident report to the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission. The information provided in this report is preliminary and PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations.”
PG&E shares fell 16.5 percent Friday, wiping $4 billion off the company’s value.
“The disastrous spread of the latest California wildfire could pile large additional liabilities on top of PG&E, already threatened by 2017 fire damages,” Bloomberg Intelligence analysts wrote in a report on Friday.
The question of PG&E’s liability has hung over the company since devastating fires broke out last year in the Wine Country and other parts of Northern California served by the utility.
State investigators previously said PG&E equipment flaws led to at least 16 fires in Northern California. Investigators said the company violated state safety laws in 11 of the fires. The cause of the Tubbs Fire, which ravaged Santa Rosa and was the state’s most destructive fire in history, hasn’t been determined.
PG&E plans to invest $6 billion to install 1,300 weather stations and 600 cameras over four years in response to wildfires.
“Driven by the growing threat posed by extreme weather, PG&E is making critical investments and further enhancing our operations so that our communities are safer and more resilient,” CEO Geisha Williams said in a statement earlier this week.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that enables PG&E to use bonds to pay off potential lawsuits related to fires. The bonds would be paid off over time by customers, as long as state regulators found that the company properly maintained its equipment prior to fires.
PG&E previously estimated that each customer would pay an extra $5 per year for each $1 billion in bonds.
If, however, the California Public Utilities Commission finds that PG&E acted negligently in any of the fires, the bonds to settle lawsuits related to those fires would be paid off by the company and its shareholders. Former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer David R. Baker contributed to this report.
This is what remains of the Safeway store in Paradise that was gutted when the explosive Camp Fire scorched the town.