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PG&E reaches $125 million settlement with state regulators for equipment-sparked Kincade fire

Pacific Gas & Electric has reached a $125 million settlement agreement with state regulators over the 2019 Kincade fire, which was ignited by electrical transmission equipment in a remote area of The Geysers geothermal field two years ago.

Under the proposed agreement with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E shareholders would pay a $40 million fine to the state general fund and another $85 million for removal of abandoned transmission equipment throughout the utility’s territory, the commission said.

The proposal is subject to approval by commissioners at their Dec. 2 meeting. The agreement was informed by investigative findings of the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division, which found fault with the maintenance and condition of a high-voltage PG&E transmission tower that remained energized for years even though it had served a Calpine power plant that no longer was active.

Though the tower was disconnected from the facility in 2006, a year after Calpine informed PG&E that it had “mothballed” the plant, the 230,000-volt transmission equipment not only remained energized, it was left with jumper cables suspended and unsecured that, over time, developed stress fatigue, the report said.

One of them broke and arced against the tower during extreme winds on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting vegetation on the ground. The Kincade fire would go on to torch nearly 78,000 acres, destroying 174 homes and about 200 other structures, and injuring four people, the regulatory agency said.

“PG&E left abandoned equipment energized for thirteen years even though that equipment provided no benefit or convenience to the public,” the enforcement division report said.

Investigators also found photographic evidence taken during a May 2019 inspection that should have alerted line staff to potential problems, the report said. Moreover, the Kincade fire bore similarities to the 2016 Sawmill fire, which broke out at The Geysers just 3 miles away and resulted from similar issues that PG&E was aware of, the utility regulators’ report said.

The agency’s investigation was separate from one conducted by Cal Fire, which last year traced the wildfire, the largest in Sonoma County history, to the high-voltage electrical transmission tower in the Mayacamas Mountains.

The high-voltage Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal fields of Sonoma County, where a jumper cable broke and arced on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting the Kincade fire, the largest wildfire in county history. (California Public Utilities Commission)
The high-voltage Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal fields of Sonoma County, where a jumper cable broke and arced on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting the Kincade fire, the largest wildfire in county history. (California Public Utilities Commission)

It is also independent of a criminal case still pending in Sonoma County Superior Court, where PG&E is charged with five felonies and 28 misdemeanor counts alleging the utility recklessly caused the fire, causing great bodily injury, among other charges.

A PG&E spokeswoman said Wednesday that the utility disputes several features of the utility commission’s investigation. In particular, the company believed the Calpine unit served by the tower to be on “cold standby,” meaning it might be put back into use, spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said.

Echoing PG&E’s position as stated in commission reports, she said Calpine also continued to pay monthly service charges and had inspected the equipment as part of its wildfire prevention efforts.

“We will continue our work to make it safe and make it right, both by resolving claims stemming from past fires and through our work to make our system safer tomorrow than it is today,” PG&E said in a written statement. “As we’ve said previously, we accept CAL FIRE’s finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the Kincade fire.”

The company agreed to settle with the commission, despite disagreeing with alleged violations, in hopes it “will assist in allowing all parties to move forward with the fire, and permit us to focus on compensating victims and making our energy system safer,” the statement said.

The Kincade fire was sparked amid fierce, dry winds that had prompted PG&E to shut off power across upper elevations in the region, though the lines in the Geysers remained energized. Winds within 3 miles of the tower were clocked at 63 mph that night, the commission said.

The high-voltage Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal fields of Sonoma County, where a jumper cable broke and arced on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting the Kincade fire, the largest wildfire in county history. (California Public Utilities Commission)
The high-voltage Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal fields of Sonoma County, where a jumper cable broke and arced on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting the Kincade fire, the largest wildfire in county history. (California Public Utilities Commission)

Though less destructive than the North Bay firestorm two years earlier, it proved terrifying nonetheless, as it exploded over several days across a wide swath of northern Sonoma County, raising fears it would be driven across Highway 101 and through densely wooded areas along the Russian River in west Sonoma County — much of which burned last year in the Walbridge fire.

An estimated 190,000 residents, almost two-fifths of Sonoma County’s population, were ordered to find safe haven elsewhere, as Sheriff Mark Essick ordered successive evacuations that eventually spread from Alexander Valley to the Sonoma Coast, including the cities of Healdsburg and Windsor.

Hundreds of firefighters battled to prevent the loss of entire communities, pulling off stunning successes despite winds that filled the sky with embers.

PG&E already has settled with Sonoma County and the cities of Windsor, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Cloverdale, agreeing last May to pay $31 million in damages related to the public safety response to the wildfire.

The company also faces numerous civil cases from the Kincade fire, in addition to legal actions and liabilities from other recent wildfires that forced it to seek bankruptcy protection in early 2019, months after the Camp fire leveled the Butte County town of Paradise. PG&E last year pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for those who died when the fire consumed the forest town as residents frantically tried to escape.

The company also is charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of four people in last year’s Zogg fire in Shasta and Tehama counties, in addition to 27 other criminal counts. It additionally is under investigation for potential responsibility in the massive Dixie fire, which burned almost 1 million acres across five counties this summer.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district sustained most of the damage from the Kincade fire, said Wednesday that he remains troubled by PG&E’s lack of transparency and accountability for a “grid they put together over 50 years with a bunch of toothpicks out in the mountains.”

He said PG&E talks about the challenges it confronts because of climate change but has been resistant to making the investments in infrastructure that are needed for the 21st century.

“You know, it’s interesting that a settlement is really about spending the money that you should have spent before on something,” Gore said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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