Prosecutors looking at a dozen fire investigations that could implicate PG&E

camp fire smoke column
The Camp Fire, Friday morning November 9, 2018. SJSU FireWeatherLab.

Already on probation after the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion that killed eight, injured 58, and destroyed 38 homes, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company could be responsible for causing November’s Camp Fire at Paradise, California and 12 other Northern California blazes that burned thousands of houses in 2017.

CAL FIRE investigators are looking at two possible PG&E power line failures that may have ignited the Camp Fire resulting in the deaths of 86 people. The agency has already prepared investigation reports on 12 fires from last year for which they believe PG&E likely violated state laws. It is now up to the seven county prosecutors and the state Attorney General to determine if they are going to file criminal charges.

PG&E’s actions before and after the gas line explosion in 2010 could be noted in combination with the recent fires likely caused by the electrical equipment, leading to additional probation controls imposed by the court.

Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia about the federal charges related to the gas line explosion:

“On April 1, 2014, PG&E was indicted by a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court, San Francisco, for multiple violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 relating to its record keeping and pipeline “integrity management” practices. An additional indictment was issued by the grand jury on July 29, 2014, charging the company with obstruction of justice for lying to the NTSB regarding its pipeline testing policy, bringing the total number of counts in the indictment to 28. Under the new indictment, the company could be fined as much as $1.3 billion, based on profit associated with the alleged misconduct, in addition to $2.5 billion for state regulatory violations.

“On January 21, 2017, PG&E was fined $3 million and ordered to perform 10,000 hours of community service for criminal actions of violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act and for obstruction of justice. In addition, it must institute a compliance and ethics monitoring program and spend up to $3 million to “publicize its criminal conduct”. These actions were imposed after the company was found guilty by a federal jury in August, 2016 of six of the twelve charges against the company in US District Court.”

Why did a 99-year old power line fail, igniting the Camp fire?

Investigators have removed parts of a transmission tower to examine more closely

Investigators are zeroing in on their goal to determine exactly what caused molten aluminum and metal to drop from a 115,000-volt PG&E power line tower at about 6:15 a.m. on November 8 near Poe Dam seven miles east of Paradise, California. A few hours later most of the town had been reduced to ashes as 50 mph winds pushed the wildfire through the community, killing at least 85 people and making thousands homeless.

As reported by an article in the Mercury News, something failed on the tower, causing a power line to get loose and whip around, striking metal which instantly heated, melted, and dropped to the ground igniting the vegetation. It could have been “a tiny O-ring that holds up rows of disc-shaped insulators, or possibly fatigued steel from one of the tower’s arms”, the article explains. The tower was built in 1919 which raises the possibility of worn out parts and metal fatigue. CAL FIRE has removed some pieces from the tower to examine further.

The newspaper also reports that CAL FIRE is investigating a possible second point of ignition below a PG&E lower voltage distribution line that occurred about half an hour after the first failure.

The Camp Fire started 13 months after the disastrous fires that burned in the Napa Valley in October of 2017. There are reports that at least 12 of them were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines.

PG&E to patrol power lines with aircraft this weekend

PG & E pacific gas and electricFollowing reports that at least 12 of the wildfires that devastated areas of the California wine country last year were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines, the company has decided to initiate helicopter patrols. The aircraft will inspect lines in El Dorado County in the areas of Camino, Cedar Grove, Pollock Pines, Sly Park, Newtown, Old Fort Jim, Sierra Springs, Pleasant Valley, Sweeneys Crossing and Happy Valley through October 28.

The National Weather Service predicts breezy conditions and elevated wildfire danger in some areas of Northern California Sunday and also Tuesday through Thursday of next week.

In the past PG&E has contracted for at least one Blackhawk helicopter that they use for heavy lift operations.

Blackhawk helicopter PG&E
Blackhawk helicopter under contract to PG&E.

In July of 2017 a helicopter under contract to PG&E crashed near Donner Summit in California.  The CHP said the six people on board had only minor injuries and none were transported to a hospital.

PG&E helicopter crash
Crash of helicopter under contract to PG&E July 11, 2017. near Donner Summit. CHP photo.

Strong, dry winds hit California

PG&E has proactively shut off power to tens of thousands of customers to prevent vulnerable power lines from starting fires

Red Flag Warnings CaliforniaWith a forecast for strong Santa Ana winds that are predicted to gust above 65 mph in some areas firefighters and utility companies are making preparations — some to prevent fires and others to suppress them after they start.

Sunday night Pacific Gas and Electric turned off the power for 59,000 of their customers in areas of six Northern California counties — Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Napa, and Sonoma — reasoning  that their electricity infrastructure is vulnerable to the strong winds, which could ignite fires.

PG&E power shut off traffic signalsPG&E sent out a tweet asking residents of those areas to “Please be safe at intersections where traffic signals are out”.

In the south part of the state Southern California Edison warned 130,000 customers they may shut off power in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for large areas of southern California through 10 p.m. Tuesday for 25 to 45 mph winds that could gust in some areas at 65 or 75 mph with humidities ranging from 4 to 12 percent.

Wind gusts at 9 a.m. PDT October 15, 2018 California
Wind gusts at 9 a.m. PDT October 15, 2018.

Several Red Flag Warnings are in effect in areas of Northern California until mid-day Monday or 1 a.m. Tuesday for 15 to 25 mph winds gusting at 35 to 45 mph along with very low humidities.

Many areas in Southern California from Los Angeles to San Diego received over half an inch of rain Friday which could have an effect on the spread of wildfires until the fine fuels are dried by the winds.

Red Flag Warnings precipitation california
Red Flag Warnings in California for October 15 with an overlay showing precipitation that occurred October 12-13, 2018.

On Sunday the moisture content of ten-hour time lag fuels in those areas was still relatively high, at 11 to 15 percent.  Ten-hour fuels include vegetation 0.25-inch to 1-inch in diameter.

10-hour time lag fuel moisture
Moisture content on October 14 of 10-hour time lag fuels (less than one-half inch in diameter).

But Northern California was a different story with 3 to 4 percent moisture content. These numbers will be lower at both ends of the state after a day or two of strong, dry winds.

PG&E equipment blamed for another of last year’s Northern California fires

This brings the total to 17 of last fall’s wildfires attributed to the company’s power lines and equipment

power line fire
File photo of Silverado Fire at 12:26 p.m. September 12, 2014.

(UPDATED at 6:20 p.m. PDT October 9, 2018)

Investigators looking into the cause and origin of the large wildfires that plagued Northern California last fall have determined that a Pacific Gas and Electric power line started the Cascade Fire in Yuba County. The blaze started on the evening of October 8 and burned a total of 9,989 acres, destroyed 264 structures, and resulted in four civilian fatalities and one firefighter injury.

“A high wind event in conjunction with the power line sag on two conductors caused the lines to come into contact, which created an electrical arc”, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) said in a news release. “The electrical arc deposited hot burning or molten material onto the ground in a receptive fuel bed causing the fire. The common term for this situation is called ‘line slap’ and the power line in question was owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.”

The investigative report for the Cascade Fire was forwarded to the Yuba County District Attorney, which is the usual practice. The D.A. decided that no violations of the Public Utilities Code in regard to vegetation management were found and made no other recommendations regarding criminal action, including the offense of involuntary manslaughter.

In total, the October 2017 Fire Siege involved more than 170 fires and burned at least 245,000 acres in Northern California. Approximately 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia helped battle the blazes.

Earlier CAL FIRE said an additional 16 fires during the siege were attributed to PG&E equipment, alleging violations of state law in 11 of those incidents. CAL FIRE still hasn’t released its report on the Tubbs blaze, the deadliest of last year’s fires, which killed 22 people, destroyed 5,643 structures, and burned 36,807 acres.

In a news release PG&E addressed the CAL FIRE report about the Cascade Fire:

We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the CAL FIRE report to understand the agency’s perspectives.

The safety of our customers, their families and the communities we serve is our most important job. Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is heartbreaking and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild.

In the meantime, we are continuing to focus on implementing additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire threats, such as working to remove and reduce dangerous vegetation, improving weather forecasting, upgrading emergency response warnings, making lines and poles stronger in high fire threat areas and taking other actions to make our system, and our customers and communities, even safer in the face of a growing wildfire threat.

 

This article was updated to include a response from PG&E.

California utility latest to talk power shutoff when conditions ripe for wildfires

Above:  A firefighter works a blaze in Northern California during the fires in Wine Country in October, 2017. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE. 

A San Francisco-based utility provider that has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of 2017’s California wildfires on Friday outlined a series of steps it says will reduce future fire risks — including preemptively cutting the power in areas facing high fire danger.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is drafting guidelines to boost wildfire prevention, create new safety measures and harden the electric grid across many of the same areas devastated last year, the company said. PG&E provides utilities to a major swath of California, including Wine Country, which was ravaged by deadly fires in October.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal, a move toward preemptive power shutdowns coincides with conversations elsewhere in the state and across the country. Officials said they were refining protocols for shutting down power lines in “areas where extreme fire conditions are occurring.” They also vowed to implement “appropriate communications and resources to help inform, prepare and support” customers and communities.

The move is not without precedent or controversy.

San Diego Gas and Electric has cut power during red flag warnings and critical fire situations, hoping to prevent a utility-sparked blaze. The policy change came on the heels of the firestorm in 2007 that investigators blamed on power lines.  In December, the San Diego company cut power in some rural areas of the county, again triggering debate about fire prevention at the cost of isolating power-dependent swaths of the population who rely on electricity for communication, disaster preparation and even medical care.

Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations, said the options were not ideal but remained necessary.

Per the Sacramento Bee newspaper: 

“We really view this as a last resort,” Hogan said. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”

However, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”

The utility, facing multiple investigations and the subject of multiple lawsuits and liability claims since October, also said it is planned to expand its weather forecasting ability by ramping up a network of company-owned weather stations.

The move is also similar to that of SDG&E that we reported on last year. 

Those tools will help inform an expanded staff of fire-focused personnel at a to-be created Wildfire Safety Operations Center that will monitor wildfire risks in real-time and coordinate prevention and response efforts with first responders, the company said.

Officials also said they would harden the electrical system by replacing wood utility poles with less-vulnerable ones and pre-treat infrastructure with fire retardant in high-risk areas.

PG&E officials said they are working with regional first responders and fire officials as the utility explores its next steps with the multi-pronged approach. The decisions are not in response to any legal trouble, officials maintained, but rather to address the ever-intensifying risks of climate change and “extreme weather events.”

“Our system and our mindset need to be laser-focused on working together to help prevent devastating wildfires like the ones in the North Bay in October and in Southern California in December from happening again, and in responding quickly and effectively if they do,” Hogan  said in a news release. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, which is what the Community Wildfire Safety Program is all about.”