Amid unprecedented power outages implemented in an effort to avert wildfires sparked by their power lines, Pacific Gas & Electric has admitted in federal court that its equipment probably caused 10 wildfires this year in Northern and Central California.
The largest utility in California told a federal judge in San Francisco that the small fires appear to have been ignited by equipment damaged by trees, vehicles or animals, according to court documents filed this month and first reported by the Sacramento Bee.
“PG&E has provided additional information at the request of the court,” the utility said in an emailed statement to the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. “As we have said throughout this process, PG&E shares the court’s focus on safety and recognizes that we must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California.”
After U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to provide information about the cause of the fires, the utility gave details about four of the blazes.
Most of the fires under scrutiny were relatively small — 50 acres or less. None burned any structures. But one — the Highway fire that started on Sept. 28 in Butte County — grew to nearly 300 acres. The fire was in the burn zone of the devastating Camp fire, which obliterated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. PG&E power lines were found responsible for that blaze.
On Wednesday, PG&E began shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of customers in an effort to avoid the ignition of wildfires amid high winds. Alsup proposed such extraordinary measures in January in an effort to prevent the utility from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.
“This will likely mean having to interrupt service during high-wind events [and possibly at other times] but that inconvenience, irritating as it will be, will pale by comparison to the death and destruction that otherwise might result from PG&E-inflicted wildfires,” the judge said at the time.
Alsup has been overseeing a criminal sentence against PG&E stemming from a deadly explosion of one of the utility’s gas lines in 2010. The blast in San Bruno killed eight people.
While PG&E provided additional information to the judge about the Highway fire, it noted the exact cause of the blaze is still under investigation, so it’s possible the utility’s equipment was not to blame.
In addition to that fire, PG&E provided information about three others: the 10-acre Spearhead fire in Fresno County, the 53-acre Belridge fire in Kern County and the 13-acre Grove fire in Mariposa County.
According to PG&E, the Spearhead fire ignited May 29 and was contained within two hours. The utility said a pine tree fell on one of its conductors, causing a pole to break and the conductor to fall to the ground.
There had been a vegetation management inspection a month before the fire occurred, but the 60-foot pine, which stood 45 feet from the PG&E equipment and outside the utility’s clearance zone, was not identified for trimming or removal. The tree was dead when it fell, according to court records.
The Belridge fire began the next day in Kern County. It was contained within a day. PG&E said the fire ignited because a tie wire that held a conductor to an insulator “had a break in it, which allowed the conductor to fall, contacting vegetation on the ground.”
The tie wire had been identified for repair months earlier but was not marked as a priority by the inspector, PG&E said. Because it was not a priority, it was not required to be repaired until February 2020.
The Grove fire broke out Sept. 16 in Mariposa County. Like the earlier Spearhead fire, the blaze ignited after a pine tree fell on a conductor, which crashed to the ground, PG&E said. The area had been inspected two weeks before, but the 65-foot tree, which was 50 feet away from conductors and also outside the utility’s clearance zone, wasn’t identified for trimming or removal.
The utility did not give information about the five other fires referenced in the Oct. 1 filing. However, after a request from Alsup, PG&E outlined its fire safety plan for the windy season, including the implementation of massive power shut-offs affecting millions of people, as well as vegetation management and equipment repair.
The judge has since been critical of PG&E’s practices, which have been proven to have contributed to deadly California wildfires.
The utility filed for bankruptcy protection on Jan. 29 as it dealt with the aftermath of the Camp fire. A day later, Alsup scolded PG&E’s lawyers in court for their statements about fire safety, according to a report by the Bee.
“Safety is not your No. 1 thing,” he said.