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PG&E vows to bury 10,000 miles of California power lines, as the Dixie fire explodes

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives committed Wednesday to move 10,000 miles of the utility's power lines underground, a daunting and expensive task for the embattled utility that's just emerging from bankruptcy after it was held responsible for some of California's most destructive wildfires in recent years.

The announcement came at a news conference in Butte County, where a plume of smoke from the Dixie fire could be seen in the distance. Just three days ago, PG&E told the Public Utilities Commission that its equipment might have sparked the fire.

At the news conference, PG&E CEO Patricia Poppe told reporters a utility employee called in the fire after he found it burning near where a 70-foot tree fell on a utility power line along the border with Butte and Plumas counties, though she didn't directly acknowledge that the tree sparked the fire.

"We were going to make this announcement in a couple of months when we had a little more meat on the bones," Poppe told reporters. "But we couldn't wait, particularly given the proximity to the Dixie fire and the emotional toll that it has on all of us."

Poppe and other PG&E officials declined to say how much the plan is expected to cost ratepayers or offer a timeline on how long it would take to complete the massive undertaking, saying the plan would still need regulatory approvals.

Utility experts have said in the past that planting power lines underground is one of the most expensive measures that can be taken to improve wildfire safety. In 2019 PG&E was scolded by a Public Utilities Commission consultant for failing to spend $120 million in ratepayer money that was earmarked for underground projects.

PG&E officials noted that they've already buried some 65 miles lines in Butte County, especially in Paradise, the site of the infamous 2018 Camp fire. The utility is currently burying lines in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley, though that project was undertaken to reduce the possibility of power shut-offs aimed at preventing fires, the utility has said.

Poppe said more lines need to go underground to keep communities safe.

"We start today. We know that this is an extraordinary condition and an extraordinary time. It requires extraordinary solutions and extraordinary thinking and extraordinary people," she said. "Where else but in California would we tackle something such as this and expect it to be achieved?"

PG&E was found criminally responsible for the Camp fire, the deadliest wildfire in California's recorded history, which killed 85 people in Butte County. The Camp fire, which destroyed much of Paradise, followed a string of fires in 2017, including in the North Bay, that landed PG&E in bankruptcy in early 2019. The company exited bankruptcy last year after pledging to pay $13.5 billion to compensate fire victims for losses not covered by their insurance.

Since leaving bankruptcy, PG&E has been linked to other fires. It paid $43 million to local governments to cover the costs of the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County and last year's fatal Zogg fire in Shasta County. It is probably facing another $600 million in damage payments to homeowners and others. Meanwhile, the utility is facing prosecution in Sonoma and a criminal investigation in Shasta.

The Public Utilities Commission in April placed the company in the first tier of its "enhanced oversight and enforcement" protocol after determining that PG&E did a poor job last year of clearing tree limbs and other vegetation away from its riskiest power lines. The company could theoretically be taken over by the state if it reaches the sixth and final tier of the utilities commission’s enhanced oversight program.

The company has vowed to do better and is spending $4.9 billion on wildfire safety this year, which the utility and firefighters say is shaping up to be one of the most dangerous fire seasons in modern history due to unprecedented dry conditions.

While she didn't directly say PG&E's line started the Dixie fire on July 13, Poppe described how an employee known as a troubleman responding to a report of a "fault" in a power line spotted the fire burning near where a 70-foot green and an otherwise healthy-looking tree had fallen onto the line.

"He took the action to attempt to put out that fire and after calling for help, he by himself in the wilderness, made multiple trips," Poppe said.

"Fortunately, he was quickly joined by Cal Fire and they went to work. They did their best to contain the fire but given the treacherous terrain, the inaccessibility of the terrain, and the incredible drought that we're all experiencing, they were unable to contain what is now known as the Dixie fire."

She said that section of lines had been inspected for trees growing too close to the lines in recent years, but the tree in question was deemed healthy and far enough away from the lines so it didn't get cut down.

The Dixie fire has since grown to 85,000 acres, and is only 15 percent contained.

On Wednesday, the fire exploded to the point Plumas County officials issued evacuation orders for the west shore of Lake Almanor and an evacuation warning for the Chester area.

In an interview Wednesday, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said his office directed Cal Fire to treat the area where the fire started as a crime scene, and a criminal investigation is underway.

Ramsey said investigators also are trying to determine who was flying a drone that grounded Cal Fire aircraft when the fire was small enough to be extinguished from the air, something that Cal Fire officials have told him could have been accomplished had the drone not been flying.

"They could have had that fire dead out," he said.

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