PG&E plan to bury lines is shot down

Pacific Gas & Electric — one of the nation’s largest utilities whose equipment has ignited some of California’s deadliest wildfires — wants to bury powerlines in some of its most at-risk areas to prevent fires like the 2018 Camp Fire, started by PG&E lines, that killed 85 people and burned the town of Paradise to the ground. Estimated total cost of the Camp Fire was about $422 billion.

11/08/2018 Camp Fire, NASA satellite image.

But state regulators are balking at the utility’s plan, the Associated Press reported, because it would take too long and cost an estimated $5.9 billion. The company’s customers, who already pay some of the highest rates in the country, would have to foot the bill.

UPDATE 10/18/2023:   According to a KEZI-TV report, Pacific Power recently announced it will receive $150 million in federal grant funding to improve its infrastructure for grid resilience and wildfire mitigation. The funding is from the U.S. Department of Energy, with just under $100 million earmarked for PacifiCorp’s grid resiliency project to reduce the effects of extreme weather on the grid serving disadvantaged communities at highest wildfire risk. An additional $50 million is earmarked for PacifiCorp’s Resiliency Enhancement for Fire Mitigation and Operational Risk Management project.

Regulators want PG&E to put protective covers over many of its overhead powerlines instead of burying them. The cover approach is cheaper, but riskier. PG&E says that burying a powerline reduces the chance it will start a fire by 99 percent because it can’t be blown down by windstorms. The protective cover would reduce that chance by just 62 percent.

tree limb on lines
Vegetation can cause faults and fires electrically. Distribution Fault Anticipation can detect this type of vegetation fault before the dangerous situation escalates. (Texas A&M Engineering) reported that the company is hoping to bury 2,100 miles of powerlines by 2026. But the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), whose members are appointed by the governor, has not signed off on the plan, out of concerns about the estimated cost.

The Manteca Bulletin reported that customers would be expected to pay PG&E at least $40 more per month; the burying plan was put forth after the utility’s lowest rates were increased 170 percent or more since 2006.

PG&E originally wanted a 26 percent increase, and is now asking for an 18 percent increase. The PUC said they’d consider a maximum of 13 percent.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after it faced more than $30 billion in damages for wildfires started by its equipment. The company prefers the burying plan, which it filed with state regulators last year.The PUC will likely decide the issue in November.

Two California counties sue PG&E over Mosquito Fire

A lawsuit was filed January 18 against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. by El Dorado County and Placer County seeking damages related to the 2022 Mosquito Fire, which burned almost 77,000 acres over 50 days in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The two counties, along with the El Dorado Water Agency, Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District, and Georgetown Divide Fire Protection District, filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. The fire burned mostly on the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests and caused evacuations of more than 11,000 people.

Mosquito Fire 09-13-22
An airtanker makes a retardant run over the Mosquito Fire after it jumped the American River and headed north toward Foresthill, California.   09-13-22 Inciweb photo.

The suit alleges that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire, which started on September 6 near the community of Foresthill, according to a report by CBS News.

“The lawsuit seeks to hold PG&E accountable and to help our community rebuild after this devastating fire,” said El Dorado County counsel David Livingston. The Mosquito Fire started near the Oxbow Reservoir at the Middle Fork American River, according to the Sacramento Bee, and it destroyed 78 structures, including dozens of homes in the Placer County community of Michigan Bluff and the El Dorado County town of Volcanoville. It was not contained till October 27.

Mosquito Fire Day #2
Extreme fire behavior on the second day produces a large column of smoke visible from Foresthill, California.
09-08-22 Inciweb photo

The county filed the lawsuit one day before PG&E officials were scheduled to appear in Shasta County Superior Court for a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and which Cal Fire investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Shasta County prosecutors charged PG&E with four counts of involuntary manslaughter; the utility company in June pleaded not guilty.

The Mosquito Fire lawsuit follows a legal settlement earlier this week in which 10 public entities agreed to $24 million from PG&E for damages caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, which started July 13 and burned over 963,300 acres across Plumas, Lassen, Butte, Shasta, and Tehama counties. Plaintiffs include the five counties, along with the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District.

“Local government across the five affected counties came together to recover these significant funds to reimburse public and natural resources lost in the fire,” Gretchen Stuhr with Plumas County told The Plumas News. “The allocated portion of the settlement proceeds will in no way make the entities whole following the devastation caused by the Dixie and Fly Fires but will assist the County in its recovery.”


Forest Service seized PG&E equipment during investigation of Mosquito Fire

The fire has burned 76,781 acres and destroyed 78 structures near Foresthill, California

Mosquito Fire
Mosquito Fire as seen looking ENE from the Auburn camera at 5:32 p.m. Sept. 8, 2022. AlertWildfire.

US Forest Service investigators working to determine the cause of the Mosquito Fire have taken possession of one of Pacific Gas and Electric’s transmission poles and attached equipment. According to a report released by the company September 24, the Forest Service said the fire started in the area of one of the company’s power lines on Forest Service land. PG&E is conducting their own investigation of the cause of the fire.

The agency has not released the cause of the fire which has burned 76,781 acres and destroyed 78 structures near Foresthill, California 35 miles northeast of Sacramento.

In October, 2020 investigators from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection looking for the cause of the Zogg Fire southwest of Redding seized PG&E equipment. The fire which burned 56,338 acres, destroyed 204 structures, and resulted in four civilian fatalities, was caused by a tree contacting a power line operated by PG&E. In September, 2021 the company was charged with manslaughter and dozens of other charges related to the fire.

In 2018 investigators seized parts of a 99-year old PG&E transmission tower at the origin of the Camp Fire which burned into Paradise, California killing at least 85 people and making thousands homeless. In May, 2019 CAL FIRE announced that their investigators determined the fire was caused by the power line.

The Wall Street Journal (subscription) reported that investigators attributed more than 1,500 fires to PG&E power lines and hardware between June 2014 and December 2017. In 2021 we put together a list of 18 fires, mostly large, attributed to failures on PG&E power lines between 1999 and 2020.

Firefighters are mopping up the Mosquito Fire, which received substantial amounts of rain last week. It is still staffed by 1,248 personnel.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

PG&E reaches settlements with 6 counties for Kincade and Dixie Fires

Will pay $55 million and avoids criminal charges

Kincade Fire map, final, November 9, 2019
Kincade Fire map, final, November 9, 2019.

Pacific Gas and Electric reached an agreement Monday with six Northern California Counties to avoid criminal charges for the company’s role in igniting two very large destructive wildfires, the 2021 Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire. The settlement means the district attorneys in the six counties will not pursue criminal charges against the company, or if they have already been filed, will be dismissed.

The Dixie Fire burned on the Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and across five counties: Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama. The Kincade Fire was in Sonoma County.

The agreements with the counties does not prevent the US Attorney from filing criminal charges for the Dixie Fire. Nor does it prevent civil litigation from property owners. The Sacramento Bee reported that PG&E said it expects liabilities from the Kincade Fire to reach $800 million and the Dixie Fire to be $1.15 billion.

The Dixie and Kincade Fires, caused by PG&E power lines, burned 963,000 and 77,758 acres respectively.

In the settlement PG&E agreed to pay $55 million over a five year period. About $35 million will go to local organizations, volunteer fire departments, local schools, Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, fire safe councils, and other non-profits. The company will pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to Sonoma County related to the Kincade Fire and a $1 million civil penalty to each of the five North Valley counties related to the Dixie Fire. PG&E said they will not seek recovery of these costs from customers.

Details of some of the payments, according to PG&E, include:

Wildfire Safety

  • Local Safety Workforce: Adding 80-100 new PG&E jobs based in Sonoma County, as well as 80-100 more positions collectively across Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama counties. These new positions will increase PG&E’s local expertise and presence focused on completing critical safety work in these communities.
  • Local Inspection and Work Commitments: Executing specific safety work and inspections in the six counties including commitments to carry out vegetation management and equipment inspections, which will be reviewed and verified by the independent monitor.

Local Community College Partnerships

  • Fire Technology Training Program: Committing to work collaboratively with Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) on efforts to expand and enhance the College’s Fire Technology Program of the Public Safety Training Center, including providing funding and sharing PG&E wildfire safety know-how and learnings. The company also will provide funding to campuses in the six counties which, at the discretion of the colleges, can be used for site acquisition and development, equipment purchases, and developing and implementing fire technology program curriculum.
  • Vegetation Management Training Program: Providing funding and assisting in the creation of new utility vegetation management training programs at SRJC and several campuses across the North Valley. These programs will be modeled after coursework that debuted at Butte College in 2020.

Direct Payment Program to Accelerate Community Recovery

  • PG&E will launch a new Direct Payments for Community Recovery program with an online tool where individuals whose homes were destroyed by the Dixie Fire can submit claims for expedited review, approval and payment. PG&E will verify the claims and make offers based on an objective, predetermined calculation. Claimants who accept the offers will receive payment, typically within 30 days of accepting an offer and within 75 days of first submitting a complete claim. PG&E has also agreed to provide in-person and telephone customer support centers to navigate this new program.
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire, Strike Team 9163G. CAL FIRE photo.

PG&E assessed $125 million in fines and penalties for starting the 2019 Kincade Fire

The blaze burned more than 77,000 acres, destroyed 374 structures, and caused the evacuation of about 185,000 residents north of Santa Rosa, California

Kincade Fire 9:06 a.m. PDT Oct. 27, 2019
The Kincade Fire as seen from the St. Helena North camera at 9:06 a.m. PDT Oct. 27, 2019. Looking toward Healdsburg.

The California Public Utilities Commission has penalized Pacific Gas and Electric $125 million for violations related to the 2019 Kincade Fire that burned more than 77,000 acres and caused the evacuation of about 185,000 residents north of Santa Rosa, California.

The fire started October 23 northeast of Geyserville, California and destroyed 374 structures.

The settlement agreed to last week requires that PG&E shareholders pay a $40 million fine to the state. The company will also not raise rates to cover the $85 million cost for permanent removal of abandoned transmission facilities, bringing the total fines and penalties to $125 million.

The company was charged with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including “unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in great bodily injury, unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in the burning of inhabited structures, and unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in the burning of forest land, as well as various air pollution crimes,” according to the District Attorney’s office.

Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sent a report to the District Attorney’s office in July of 2020 which concluded PG&E’s equipment was at fault.

On October 24, 2019 PG&E filed a required preliminary report with the California Public Utilities Commission that stated “at approximately (9:20 p.m.) on Oct. 23, PG&E became aware of a Transmission level outage on the Geysers No. 9 Lakeville 230kV line when the line relayed and did not reclose. At approximately (7:30 a.m.) on Oct. 24, a responding PG&E Troubleman patrolling the Geysers No. 9 Lakeville 230 kV line observed that CalFire had taped off the area around the base of transmission tower 001/006. On site CalFire personnel brought to the Troubleman’s attention what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower.”

jumper cable high voltage electrical transmission tower
File photo of a jumper cable on a high voltage electrical transmission tower.

PG&E told a judge on November 29, 2019 that it was investigating whether there was a systemic problem with a piece of hardware on their high voltage electrical transmission towers that can start wildfires, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Investigators with PG&E and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were looking at the possible failure of jumper cables on towers near the points of origin of two huge recent fires, the 2017 Camp Fire at Paradise, California and the Kincade Fire.

map kincade fire California wildfire
Map showing in red the perimeter of the Kincade Fire at 12:49 a.m. PDT October 29, 2019. The white line was the approximate perimeter about 24 hours before.

Investigators determined that PG&E equipment started other fires in recent years. The Wall Street Journal (subscription) reported that investigators attributed more than 1,500 fires to PG&E power lines and hardware between June 2014 and December 2017. CAL FIRE attributed 12 large fires that started on October 8 and 9, 2017 to PG&E power equipment.

We constructed a list of 18 of the larger fires linked to PG&E equipment.

PG&E charged with manslaughter for Zogg Fire in northern California

Zogg Fire, Sept. 27, 2020 California
Zogg Fire, Sept. 27, 2020. CAL FIRE photo.

In March investigators with CAL FIRE determined that the Zogg Fire which burned 56,338 acres, destroyed 204 structures, and caused four civilian fatalities, was caused by a tree contacting a power line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). On Friday the company was charged with manslaughter and other charges.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against PG&E, saying it failed to perform its legal duties and that its “failure was reckless and criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people.”

If the utility is convicted of manslaughter, the punishment would be a fine for each person killed in the Zogg Fire last year southwest of Redding, California.

Zogg Fire
Zogg Fire soon after it started, looking east from Ducket at 3:32 p.m. PDT Sept. 27, 2020. AlertWildfire.

Last year PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for starting the Camp Fire which destroyed most of the town of Paradise and became the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century.

The company has admitted that their equipment may have ignited the Dixie Fire which has burned more than 600 residences and 963,000 acres near Susanville, California. At least two firefighters died of COVID-19 while assigned to the fire.

Map of the Zogg Fire
Map of the Zogg Fire October 9, 2020.