news 6 days ago

PG&E says blackouts limited fires despite 1 likely failure

The Associated Press — By DON THOMPSON - Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The nation’s largest utility said Friday that its distribution lines haven’t sparked any major wildfires since it began shutting off power to Northern California customers during periods of high fire risk.

However, Pacific Gas & Electric is not ruling out the possibility that failed transmission equipment may have started a fire north of San Francisco that damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures.

Authorities have not determined what sparked that blaze last month in Sonoma County, but the utility has said it had a problem at a transmission tower near the site where the fire started. PG&E said in a court filing Friday that it is not aware of similar vulnerable equipment elsewhere.

PG&E has said it shut off power to distribution lines to prevent wildfires, but left electricity flowing through what it believed were less vulnerable transmission lines.

Distribution lines carry power to homes, while transmission lines move it from a power plant.

“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.

PG&E has acknowledged its equipment caused a fire last year that killed 85 people and burned nearly 19,000 structures, nearly destroying the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Paradise.

PG&E has said it could potentially be held liable for 21 wildfires in 2017 that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 buildings.

The PG&E statement Friday “sets the bar unbelievably low, if that’s the standard now: ‘We didn’t kill anybody,’” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group.

Most consumers don’t care about the distinction between distribution lines and transmission lines, she said. “Negligence is still negligence.”

The utility has faced scathing criticism for shutting off power to millions of people for days at a time to avoid more fire tragedies. It said 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 to 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 its 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 a jumper cable that broke moments before last month’s fire was reported.

The company said the tower with the detached cable had been 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 fear that other cables that passed inspection could also 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.

“They inspected a tower three times and it still failed,” Spatt said. “They’re saying the options are we can either shut you off or start a fire. There should be an option to provide reliable electricity. That’s what we pay for.”

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

The utility said Friday that it found 23 instances where vegetation or high winds had 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 said 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.

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Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San Francisco.