PG&E scru­ti­nized in deadly Camp Fire

Prob­lem at power line near ori­gin of state’s most de­struc­tive blaze

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Roland Li, Jill Tucker and Erin All­day

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.

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

This is what re­mains of the Safe­way store in Par­adise that was gut­ted when the ex­plo­sive Camp Fire scorched the town.

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