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PG&E says blackouts limited wildfires despite likely failure in Sonoma County

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SACRAMENTO — The nation’s largest utility said Friday that its distribution lines have sparked no damaging wildfires since it began repeatedly shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of Northern California customers this fall.

But Pacific Gas & Electric is not ruling out that failed transmission equipment may have started the Kincade fire in Wine Country that damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures.

Authorities have not determined what sparked the wildfire in Sonoma County last month, but the utility has said it had a problem at a transmission tower near where the fire ignited.

It had shut off power to distribution lines to prevent its equipment from igniting wildfires, but left electricity flowing through what it believed were less vulnerable transmission lines. PG&E said in a court filing Friday that it is not aware of similar vulnerable equipment elsewhere.

“In 2019, there have been no fatalities and no structures destroyed in any wildfire that may have been caused by PG&E distribution lines,” the company said.

That’s in sharp contrast to recent years, despite the potential blame it faces for sparking last month’s damaging wildfire.

PG&E acknowledges its equipment caused last year’s Camp fire that ravaged the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Paradise, destroying nearly 19,000 buildings and killing 85 people.

For 2017, PG&E said it could be held potentially liable for 21 wildfires that combined to destroy 8,900 buildings and killed 44 people.

The utility has faced scathing criticism for shutting off power to millions of people for days at a time to avoid a repeat of those tragedies. The company said in statement Friday that “the sole focus” of the blackouts is to reduce wildfire risk, that it recognizes the hardships they cause and the company is working minimize the impact of future shutoffs.

The company declared bankruptcy in January as it faced up to $30 billion in damages from wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that were started by the company's electrical equipment. Lawyers for wildfire victims and PG&E now are considering whether new claims related to the most recent fire will be included in the bankruptcy case.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility's felony probation for a deadly natural gas explosion in 2010, required officials to provide more details Friday about the jumper cable that broke moments before last month’s fire was reported.

The company said the tower with the detached cable, which is a metal connector between an incoming and outgoing electrical line, was last routinely visually inspected from the ground in July, with a drone in May, and by a contractor crew that climbed the tower in February as part of the utility’s wildfire safety inspection program. They spotted no problems with the jumper cables, the company reported.

The judge asked whether the public must now fear that other cables that passed inspection could also still fail.

PG&E said is investigating but is not currently aware of any other jumper cables that are vulnerable.

The company said it had inspected about 750,000 distribution and transmission structures in high-risk areas and “repaired or made safe all of the highest-priority conditions” by September, before last month’s fire. That included repairing two “Priority Code ‘A’ conditions relating to jumper cables on transmission structures.”

As of mid-September, PG&E believed its equipment had contributed to nine fires this year that were 10 acres or greater, even if they caused no damage or deaths.

The utility said Friday that it found 23 instances where vegetation or high winds damaged its power lines or equipment during the Oct. 23 power shut off, 19 of which would likely have caused sparking had the power been on.

It found 285 sites with vegetation or wind damage during the Oct. 26 and Oct. 29 shut-offs, 199 of which could otherwise have caused fires.

The report comes two days after a different federal judge rejected the utility’s latest attempt to change a California law requiring utilities to pay for the destruction caused by wildfires ignited by their electrical equipment.

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Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San Francisco.

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