PG&E outside inspectors find tree hazards that were overlooked

Camp fire
The Camp fire burning near Pulga, Calif., in November 2018.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

PG&E Corp.’s court-appointed compliance monitor concluded the utility isn’t trimming trees that pose wildfire threats in high-risk areas of California and didn’t train its contractors properly.

The monitor, Mark Filip, on Wednesday wrote to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, saying he uncovered “significant, actionable findings,” including record-keeping deficiencies.

Inspections are “not only revealing individual trees that are missed, including three active wildfire threats in high-risk areas, but they also reflect gaps in processes, for example, contractor training,” the monitor said.


The findings risk infuriating Alsup, who has repeatedly admonished PG&E over its failures and recklessness, and strained to arrive at a punishment that will spur the company to strengthen its fire-prevention efforts.

That the monitor has uncovered hazards PG&E arguably should’ve found on its own doesn’t bode well for the utility, or new Chief Executive Bill Johnson, at a Sept. 17 hearing the judge scheduled to discuss Filip’s findings.

The monitor is reviewing PG&E’s wildfire mitigation efforts, after the company’s 2016 conviction stemming from a gas pipeline blast that killed eight people. Filip’s job is to ensure PG&E doesn’t violate the terms of its probation and to scrutinize its business practices more broadly.

Filip’s role has grown as PG&E’s equipment has been found culpable for igniting wildfires that scorched swaths of Northern California and killed residents in recent years. The utility is under criminal investigation in Butte County, where the Camp fire, which raged for two weeks in November, destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people.

Lawsuits over the loss of life and damage caused by the Camp fire and other blazes precipitated PG&E’s filing for bankruptcy.

The monitor said five of PG&E’s felony convictions from the 2016 trial “related to record-keeping defects concerning its gas operations.”


State investigators have found that some of the 2017 wine country wildfires were sparked by trees falling on PG&E power lines. Utility lines can spark fires by coming into contact with tree branches, falling onto dry brush or coming into contact with other equipment and emitting sparks.

The company said it shares the monitor’s concerns about wildfire risk.

“PG&E’s service area includes more than 120 million trees with the potential to grow or fall into our overhead power lines,” PG&E said in a statement. “While we have made progress in many areas to further enhance wildfire safety including vegetation-management work, we acknowledge that we have more work to do.”