PG&E utility poles and power lines blamed for four California wildfires

by Steve Blum • , ,

PG&E utility poles and power lines blamed for four California wildfires

Four northern California wildfires were “were caused by trees coming into contact with power lines” belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric, according to the California department of forestry and fire protection (Cal Fire). It’s the first batch of reports to pinpoint the causes of what Cal Fire calls the “October Fire Siege” in 2017. In three of those incidents, Cal Fire found evidence that a law requiring electric utility to keep trees trimmed was “allegedly” violated, and in one of those cases directly calls out PG&E as the culprit. Allegedly. Those three cases have been turned over to county district attorneys “for review”.

All four fires – in Butte and Nevada counties – were caused by power lines coming into contact with trees, according to Cal Fire. The largest of the four – the La Porte blaze in Butte County – started despite Cal Fire’s conclusion that “there were no violations of state law related to the cause of this fire”.

PG&E’s responded in a press release, saying “based on the information we have so far, we believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards”. Translation: we’re not so sure about specific poles or fires.

The four fires burned through 9,400 acres of land and destroyed 134 structures. Fortunately, no one was injured. That wasn’t the case in some of the other 170 or so fires that burned a total of 245,000 acres in northern California last October, where dozens of people lost their lives as thousands of homes burned. Those fires, including the deadliest in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties, are still under investigation. Given that reports at the time claimed that utility lines were implicated, it’s possible that PG&E’s troubles are just beginning.

It’s also possible that PG&E will have company. Cable, telephone and other telecoms companies also use those poles. In at least one past southern California fire, a telecoms company – Cox Communications – shared the blame for starting it.

The California Public Utilities Commission writes and enforces the safety rules that govern utility poles, and will use Cal Fire’s reports to “inform” its own investigation.