When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California
In a startling new legal problem for PG&E, a federal judge threatened Wednesday to impose broad new mandates on the utility to reduce wildfire risks in the wake of this year’s Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country blazes.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, citing PG&E’s “history of falsification of inspection reports,” said he plans to order PG&E to “re-inspect all of its electrical grid and remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines, poles or equipment in high-wind conditions.” He also said the utility might be required to “fix any other condition anywhere in its grid similar to any condition that contributed to any previous wildfires.”
The judge said the inspections and repairs, if ordered, would have to be undertaken by June 21 — the first day of summer and the unofficial start of the next fire season in California.
The broad new rules are just a proposal; Alsup will hold a hearing on the plan Jan. 30 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
An inspection of PG&E’s entire grid would be an enormous undertaking; the utility maintains 106,000 miles of distribution lines in California; its territory runs from Eureka to Bakersfield.
Alsup is overseeing the probation term imposed on PG&E in 2017 after it was convicted of six felony counts of violating federal pipeline laws in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. After the Camp Fire ripped through Paradise in November, killing 86 people in the deadliest fire in California history, the judge demanded to know whether any of the 2017 or 2018 wildfires represented a violation of the probation.
Since then, the Public Utilities Commission has opened an investigation into allegations that PG&E has falsified gas pipeline safety records following the San Bruno explosion, which killed eight people.
PG&E has already vowed step up wildfire safety by pruning trees more aggressively and taking other steps. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also pledged to take steps to reduce fire risks, asking the Legislature for another $105 million to improve safety.
The steps contemplated by Alsup would represent another potential blow to a company that is reportedly contemplating bankruptcy in the face of billions of dollars in potential wildfire damage claims.
The judge, in his proposed order, would require PG&E to cut power to areas during high wind conditions. “Reliability is important but safety must come first. Profits are important but safety must come first. Only safe operation will be allowed,” he said in his proposed order.
PG&E instituted a deliberate blackout to portions of Northern California last fall, but canceled a similar planned blackout just before the Camp Fire started. It’s unclear whether a blackout would have prevented the fire.
Oakland energy consultant John Geesman, a former member of the California Energy Commission, called the judge’s proposed order a harsh criticism of both PG&E and the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the company.
“Wow, I think it is huge,” Geesman said. “The judge appears not to believe reliance on the CPUC regulation ... is sufficient, and is now creating a parallel oversight by the federal courts of PG&E’s business operations.”
Geesman said “there is no question” the judge doesn’t trust the PUC.
“If Judge Alsup considered PUC oversight to be satisfactory, he would be extremely reluctant to step into this role.”
Mike Danko, a lawyer who’s suing PG&E on behalf of Camp Fire survivors, said in an email: “The judge is saying ‘this isn’t that hard. Cut down the trees (that) put the wires at risk. Turn off the power when it gets too windy.’ ”
Cal Fire investigators are focusing on a faulty transmission tower in the vicinity of where the fire started but hasn’t yet determined a cause of the fire. PG&E equipment was blamed by Cal Fire in a dozen of the 2017 wine-country fires.
Officials with PG&E declined to comment on the judge’s orders, but said the company is reviewing the documents issued by the judge.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, James Noonan with PG&E said, “PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We are aware of Judge Alsup’s orders and are currently reviewing. 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.”
PUC officials were unavailable for comment Wednesday.