At least 71 people are dead, more than a thousand are missing, and the fight to contain the Camp Fire in Butte County continues. As dense smoke settled over its San Francisco headquarters, the California Public Utilities Commission said it will take a hard look at Pacific Gas and Electric, which might have been responsible for starting it.
In yet another bizarre twist to the story, PG&E filed a second incident report with the CPUC late yesterday afternoon, revealing that it “experienced an outage on the Big Bend 1101 12kV circuit in Butte County”, in the community of Concow, at 6:45 a.m. on 8 November 2018, the morning it all began. Previously, PG&E disclosed that it had an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line, a mile northeast of the town of Pulga, 30 minutes before that at 6:15 a.m.
The first report correlated to eyewitness reports of a fire underneath a PG&E high voltage line that began coming in at 6:33 a.m., which was before this second outage happened.
PG&E isn’t offering any details – or speculation – about what this second report might mean. It’s only saying “Cal Fire has collected PG&E equipment on that circuit” and “secured a location” nearby. All Cal Fire has said about the cause of the Camp Fire is that it’s “under investigation”.
Concow is between Pulga and Paradise. Until now, the publicly available information indicated that the fire started east of Pulga, where it was first reported, then moved west into Pulga, through Concow and then into Paradise. A story in the Chico Enterprise Record earlier this week told of how a zone by zone evacuation plan – previously rehearsed by Paradise officials – was pushed beyond the breaking point by the speed of the blaze. This latest report from PG&E raises the possibility that a second ignition point flared up closer to Paradise, taking everyone by surprise.
At this point it’s just my own speculation. But if something like that happened – two fires beginning so close together, from similar causes – it raises even more questions about how this kind of disaster can be prevented in the future.
CPUC president Michael Picker said in a press release “in the existing PG&E safety culture investigation proceeding, I will open a new phase examining the corporate governance, structure, and operation of PG&E, including in light of the recent wildfires”. He also said that the commission will begin implementing senate bill 901, which was passed by the California legislature earlier this year and allows electric utilities to pass some of the costs associated with wildfire liability on to customers.
The physical damage toll will be in the billions of dollars, beyond the limit of PG&E’s insurance coverage and, maybe, beyond its ability to pay under normal circumstances. Bankruptcy is a possibility, if PG&E is even partly to blame and the CPUC doesn’t offer a sufficient bail out.
Southern California Edison also faces the possibility of a multi-billion dollar damage bill from the Woolsey and Hill fires, which ripped through parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. One of its high voltage lines was near the Woolsey Fire’s point of origin, although the cause is yet to be determined as well.
Long term, there are many ideas floating around for reducing the risk of wildfires in California. But for now – for today – the only thing electric utilities can do is turn off power to high risk lines ahead of high wind forecasts.
So far, there have been no major wildfires in San Diego Gas and Electric’s territory. The winds came a little later there, and SDG&E aggressively and proactively de-energised lines before the worst hit. Power was deliberately cut to more than 24,000 customers, with all service restored by yesterday.
SCE didn’t proactively shut down any lines before the fires began, but did shut off a total of 85 customers in scattered locations as high winds continued. All were back on line by Wednesday. PG&E warned it might cut off power in Butte and either other northern California counties ahead of the Camp Fire, but did not do so and stopped issuing alerts more than a week ago.