Judge blames deadly Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires on PG&E’s unin­su­lated power con­duc­tors

Lodi News-Sentinel - - LOCAL/NATION - By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sa­balow

SACRA­MENTO — A fed­eral judge Thurs­day blamed unin­su­lated power con­duc­tors owned by PG&E for the bulk of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s wild­fires the past two years — in­clud­ing the deadly Camp fire in Butte County – adding to the le­gal woes the util­ity is con­fronting.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Wil­liam Al­sup, who is over­see­ing the com­pany’s crim­i­nal pro­ba­tion from the 2010 San Bruno nat­u­ral gas pipe­line ex­plo­sion, said he has ten­ta­tively con­cluded that unin­su­lated power con­duc­tors lie at the heart of the wild­fire cri­sis that has plunged PG&E into bankruptcy.

Al­sup made his ten­ta­tive con­clu­sion as part of his plan, an­nounced a week ago, to force PG&E to em­bark on a mas­sive equip­ment in­spec­tion and tree-prun­ing pro­gram in ad­vance of the up­com­ing fire sea­son. He has given PG&E un­til next Wed­nes­day to re­spond to that plan, which could also call for wide­spread black­outs this sum­mer when winds gust to dan­ger­ous lev­els.

“The sin­gle most re­cur­ring cause of the large 2017 and 2018 wild­fires at­trib­ut­able to PG&E’s equip­ment has been the sus­cep­ti­bil­ity of PG&E’s dis­tri­bu­tion lines to trees or limbs fall­ing onto them dur­ing high-wind events,” the judge wrote Thurs­day. “This has most of­ten oc­curred in ru­ral ar­eas where dis­tri­bu­tion lines use 35 to 50-foot sin­gle poles and run through grass, brush, oak and pines.

“The power con­duc­tors are al­most al­ways unin­su­lated. When the con­duc­tors are pushed to­gether by fall­ing trees or limbs, elec­tri­cal sparks drop into the veg­e­ta­tion be­low.”

Al­sup is hold­ing a hear­ing Jan. 30 on his pro­posal to force PG&E to make dra­matic up­grades in its fire safety pro­gram.

PG&E on Mon­day said it plans to file for Chap­ter 11 bankruptcy at the end of the month as it strug­gles with li­a­bil­i­ties that could ex­ceed $30 bil­lion from the Novem­ber Camp fire and the 2017 wine coun­try fires. The Camp Fire killed 86 peo­ple, the most in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory, while more than 40 peo­ple per­ished in the wine coun­try fires.

Cal Fire has blamed PG&E for 12 of the 2017 fires, although it hasn’t fin­ished its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the worst of the wine coun­try blazes, the Tubbs Fire that dev­as­tated neigh­bor­hoods of Santa Rosa. It is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Camp Fire, although PG&E has dis­closed prob­lems with a high-volt­age transmissi­on tower the morn­ing the fire started, in the area where it is be­lieved to have ig­nited.

It’s un­clear what ef­fect Al­sup’s find­ings would have on the avalanche of lit­i­ga­tion PG&E is fac­ing.

At­tor­ney Dario de Ghetaldi, a Bay Area lawyer rep­re­sent­ing scores of sur­vivors of the Camp fire and other fires, said Al­sup’s con­clu­sion doesn’t ad­dress “the fail­ure of PG&E’s veg­e­ta­tion man­age­ment pro­gram.”

“We don’t know where he’s go­ing with this,” de Ghetaldi said.

PG&E spokesman James Noo­nan said the com­pany is re­view­ing Al­sup’s con­clu­sion.

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