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PG&E inspection finds 1,200 safety problems in wildfire-prone areas of California

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PG&E said Wednesday it found about 1,200 unsafe conditions in its power equipment across California in areas deemed at high risk for wildfires and has repaired nearly all of them.

The inspection, launched in December and unprecedented in its scope for the San Francisco-based utility, covered nearly 700,000 power distribution poles, nearly 50,000 transmission structures and 222 substations, more than 5,500 miles of transmission line and 25,200 miles of distribution line.

All the conditions that posed “an immediate safety risk” in transmission lines and at substations have been repaired along with 97% of the conditions on poles, Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program, said in a conference call with reporters.

Crews were in the field completing the pole repair work Wednesday, he said.

While the safety problems involved a small proportion of the system that serves 5.4 million power customers across Northern and Central California, Singh said the risk was “unacceptable.”

“We need to do better,” he said. “When it comes to safety, our work is not done and it never will be done.”

The announcement came a day after PG&E unveiled a tentative $1 billion settlement with local governments across Northern California to cover taxpayer costs stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, which were the deadliest and most destructive in state history.

The worst, the Camp fire last year in Butte County, was sparked by a PG&E transmission line, according to Cal Fire, the state forestry and firefighting agency. The blaze killed 85 people and burned more than 19,000 structures, most of them homes.

The utility filed for bankruptcy protection in January, citing billions in liabilities related to wildfires linked to its equipment.

In a press release, Singh said the “unmistakable message” of the inspection program was that PG&E “must do a much better job of making sure that we maintain our assets in a way that puts safety first.”

Critics, including California Public Utilities Commission officials who oversee the state’s power companies, have faulted PG&E’s commitment to safety.

PG&E equipment was deemed responsible for causing 17 of 18 of Northern California wildfires that broke out in October 2017, according to Cal Fire. The lone exception was the Tubbs fire that Cal Fire said stemmed from private power equipment outside of Calistoga, sparking the historic inferno that burned into Santa Rosa.

The issue is a pressing one for the state and its 40 million residents. Thirteen of the top 20 most destructive wildfires on record in California have come in the past 12 years, and at least eight of those have been sparked by utility- or privately owned power equipment, according to Cal Fire. The list could grow with a pending state determination on the cause of the 2018 Woolsey fire, which lawsuits have linked to Southern California Edison power lines.

More than half of PG&E’s 72,000-square-mile service area from Bakersfield to the Oregon border lies in the high-risk fire areas designated by the state utilities commission. Most of Sonoma County, with the exception of the Highway 101 corridor and most of the nine cities, also lies in areas at high risk of burning.

Asked if PG&E could identify the locations of the safety problems found in the inspections, Singh said a list of repair sites by city and county would be posted on the company website before July 15.

Safety risks found in the inspection program included worn mechanical hardware, structural components compromised by wear or erosion and woodpecker holes in poles, Singh said.

The cost of PG&E’s wildfire safety plan, including the inspection program and vegetation management, may exceed $2.3 billion, he said. The utility intends to include the cost in its rate base, used to set the charges paid by customers.

More than 2,000 people, PG&E employees and contract workers, conducted the inspections on the ground and by climbing poles and transmission towers, as well as through aerial surveys from helicopters and drones. Experts reviewed high-definition photographs to assess the severity of damage and establish repair priorities, the release said.

Singh said the expanded effort was needed to address an “unprecedented wildfire threat (that) is real and growing.”

In the past two years, more than 16,000 wildfires have charred nearly 3 million acres statewide.

PG&E also announced it has permanently shut down the Caribou-Palermo transmission line identified by Cal Fire as the source of the Camp fire in Butte County. The line has been out of service since December, the utility said.

In addition, 10 of the 11 towers on a section of the transmission line running through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin County and serving Sausalito need to be replaced and PG&E is coordinating the work with the GGNRA, utility officials said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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