Judge proposes ordering PG&E to shut off power for wildfires

Cars at one of the many Paradise, Calif., businesses destroyed by the Camp fire.
(Peter DaSilva / EPA/Shutterstock)

To prevent wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should reinspect its entire electric grid and cut off power during certain wind conditions regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit, a U.S. judge proposed Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in a court order that his goal was to prevent the utility from causing any wildfires in 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,” Alsup said.


He gave PG&E until Jan. 23 to respond to his proposal. PG&E said it was reviewing Alsup’s order.

“We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future,” the company said.

Alsup is 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 the Bay Area killed eight people.

A U.S. judge in 2017 put PG&E on five years of probation following its conviction on pipeline safety charges. Alsup asked PG&E in November whether any requirements of the sentence might be implicated if its equipment ignited a wildfire. The judge noted that the sentence required that PG&E not engage in any additional crimes.

He also asked the utility to explain any role it may have played in a massive wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.

Investigators have not determined the cause of the wildfire that began Nov. 8 but speculation has centered on PG&E, which reported an outage around the time and place the fire ignited.


Alsup noted in Wednesday’s order that state fire investigators have determined PG&E caused 18 wildfires in 2017, 12 of which were referred for possible criminal prosecution.

The judge proposed PG&E remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines, poles or equipment in high-wind conditions and document its inspections and work. He accused the utility of a “history of falsification of inspection reports.”

He is also considering ordering the utility during the 2019 wildfire season to supply electricity only to those parts of its electrical grid it has determined to be safe under wind conditions at the time.

PG&E cut power to tens of thousands of Northern California customers in October because of high fire danger, prompting complaints and demands for reimbursement from some customers.

PG&E’s credit rating and stock price fell this month following reports that it was considering filing for bankruptcy protection in the face of potentially crippling liability damages from a spate of wildfires.