Did PG&E ad­e­quately main­tain power lines be­fore fires started?

Yes, there were hur­ri­cane-force winds driv­ing the Wine Coun­try fire. There were — are — drought-dam­aged trees for ready fuel, and scrub veg­e­ta­tion parched over the sum­mer for tin­der.

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But we need to un­der­stand ex­actly how this clus­ter of wild­fires de­vel­oped into one of the most de­struc­tive in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory. The hor­rific loss of life and prop­erty de­mands that Cal Fire con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the causes.

One pos­si­bil­ity is that elec­tric util­i­ties dam­aged by the un­usual 75 mph winds Sun­day night sparked the fires. A Bay Area News Group re­view of emer­gency ra­dio traf­fic re­veals that Sonoma County dis­patch­ers sent fire crews to at least 10 lo­ca­tions over a 90-minute pe­riod to check re­ports of spark­ing wires and other elec­tri­cal problems.

At this point, dis­cussing pos­si­ble causes is “highly spec­u­la­tive,” as a PG&E spokesman said Tues­day. But if util­i­ties were a fac­tor, peo­ple need to know if the lines in that area — and in other parts of Cal­i­for­nia vul­ner­a­ble to fire — have been prop­erly main­tained.

PUC spokes­woman Terrie Pros­per said Tues­day that once fire of­fi­cials de­ter­mine the prob­a­ble cause, “if it ap­pears that a util­ity line may have been in­volved, the PUC will in­ves­ti­gate.”

No kid­ding.

PG&E and other util­i­ties in Cal­i­for­nia have a long his­tory of di­vert­ing main­te­nance funds into prof­its. The PUC knows this, and knows all too well the fire dan­ger from gas and power lines. PG&E has been do­ing main­te­nance work in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties. The ques­tion is the ex­tent of that work and the PUC’s role in mon­i­tor­ing it.

Given the PUC’s cozy his­tory with PG&E, that needs a close look.

The San Bruno gas line ex­plo­sion and fire in 2010 that killed eight peo­ple and de­stroyed 38 homes is the most

PG&E and other util­i­ties in Cal­i­for­nia have a long his­tory of di­vert­ing main­te­nance funds into prof­its.

in­fa­mous ex­am­ple. For months, PUC Pres­i­dent Michael Peevey was PG&E’s big­gest ally in fend­ing off ac­count­abil­ity for the ex­plo­sion. Peevey even­tu­ally de­parted in dis­grace, and PG&E was con­victed of a felony and fined $1.6 bil­lion for di­vert­ing main­te­nance funds into stock­holder div­i­dends and ex­ec­u­tive bonuses.

Just this April PG&E was fined $8.3 mil­lion for fail­ure to ad­e­quately main­tain power lines that sparked the 2015 the Butte fire in Amador County, killing two peo­ple and de­stroyed 549 homes.

As far back as 1994, PG&E was found guilty of neg­li­gence in the Rough and Ready fire that de­stroyed 12 homes. In that case, pros­e­cu­tors learned af­ter­ward that PG&E had di­verted nearly $80 mil­lion from its tree-trim­ming pro­grams into prof­its.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Ma­teo, is the chair of the state Sen­ate Sub­com­mit­tee on Gas, Elec­tric and Trans­porta­tion Safety. He was al­ready plan­ning a hear­ing on the ex­tent to which util­i­ties are liv­ing up to state main­te­nance stan­dards.

It may be that some­thing other than downed power lines cre­ated the Wine Coun­try firestorm. It may be that the best­main­tained lines can’t with­stand hur­ri­cane winds.

But we need to know. And PUC needs to be forth­com­ing about what it knows and doesn’t know about util­i­ties’ main­te­nance.

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