PG&E equipment may have caused nine fires this year, utility reveals to federal judge

Pacific Gas & Electric equipment issues may have caused nine wildfires - all of them small - in 2019 in Northern and Central California, including one just two weeks ago in Butte County, according to new federal court documents.

Under orders by a federal court judge, the beleaguered utility company revealed details Wednesday of five of those wildfires in Butte, Fresno, Kern and Mariposa counties.

The most recent was a 300-acre fire Sept. 28 in Butte County, site of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. The new blaze, called the Highway Fire, burned for more than three hours that afternoon. There were no structures burned.

According to its filing in a San Francisco federal court, PG&E said that fire is under investigation, but acknowledged its equipment may have caused the blaze. The utility provided no other details.

The utility company acknowledged that its equipment may also be the source of the May 29 Spearhead Fire in Fresno County, which burned ten acres. That fire was ignited when a dead tree toppled into a power line. PG&E crews had done maintenance in that area the previous month, but did not trim or remove the 60-foot tree because it was 45 feet away from the line, outside of the legally mandated maintenance zone.

Other fires were the May 30 Belridge Fire in Kern County that burned 53 acres, and the Sept. 16 Grove Fire in Mariposa County that burned 13 acres.

No structures were destroyed by the five fires.

PG&E on Wednesday shut off power to hundreds of thousands of Northern California residents in anticipation of high winds throughout much of the north state.

The new disclosures were ordered earlier this month by federal U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who has been overseeing the company’s criminal probation from the 2010 San Bruno gas main explosion.

Alsup, one of the utility’s harshest public critics, earlier this year ordered the utility to launch a major maintenance program on its power grid in Northern and Central California.

PG&E is in bankruptcy proceedings, weighed down by tens of billions of dollars in claims from a series of Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County last November, which decimated Paradise, a town of 27,000, and caused 85 deaths.

PG&E has reported it is investing more in maintenance this year. Alsup, however, has been highly critical of the utility, and forced its board of directors to take a bus tour earlier this year of the Paradise area.

“Safety is not your No. 1 thing,” he scolded the utility’s lawyers.

In a court filing that day, PG&E reported that it plans to hire more workers to speed up vegetation and power line inspections and maintenance in preparation for the current high-wind season. It declined to say, however, whether it believes it can meet its 2019 targets for line inspections and repairs.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.