Ageing, inadequate infrastructure contributed to the destruction during last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 86 people and did billions of dollars worth of damage. Congested roads were a big part of the problem, but so was a lack of telecommunications service, either because it was knocked out by the fires or, in many cases, not there in the first place, according to a report by a “strike force” commissioned by California governor Gavin Newsom…
In a matter of hours, 52,000 people from rural Paradise and surrounding communities evacuated onto roads built for a fraction of that capacity and converged on Chico, overwhelming the recovery system. The scale and speed of catastrophic, wind-driven wildfires, like the Camp Fire, incapacitate existing emergency response systems, local infrastructure and planned recovery efforts. Many California communities designed their fire emergency response and recovery systems decades ago, using old technology and outdated fire modelling. A clear overhaul of the California emergency response systems and the underlying infrastructure is needed.
The lack of broadband in rural communities and access to cell service make it difficult to communicate clear emergency evacuation orders to residents or locate residents who are in trouble.
Broadband did not play a significant role in warning residents of massive fires sweeping through California’s wine country in 2017. The North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium surveyed nearly 1,600 residents of the fire stricken areas. Only 11 said they received warnings from online sources: five on Facebook, four from Nextdoor.com and two via notices on public agency websites.
Phone calls – including those from from family, friends, public agencies – played a bigger role. About a third of the respondents were alerted via either mobile or landline calls.
The big problem during the wine country fires was the damage done to telecommunications infrastructure. Nearly four-fifths of the people surveyed lost mobile connectivity, either partially or completely, and two-thirds lost landline connections. Overall, 69% were cut off from the Internet for at least some of the time during the disaster.
In the wake of last year’s deadly wildfires, California lawmakers proposed legislation to reduce future risk by reducing electric line exposure. Those ambitions didn’t amount to much, though. Two bills to encourage utilities to move lines off of poles and place them underground, particularly in high fire risk areas were scrapped. A third one was neutered, but is still moving forward.
Senate bill 70 was passed unanimously by the senate and is awaiting its fate in the assembly. Authored by Jim Nielsen (R – Tehama), it’s less ambitious than first drafted. It establishes a “working group” to “promote the undergrounding of electrical infrastructure and the implementation of a statewide joint trenching policy”. Any money to pay for it, though, would have be found later. Originally, it included stronger language that would have required utilities to put lines underground when rebuilding or cleaning up after a wildfire.
That said, it could be useful. Anything that encourages cooperation between electric and telecoms companies, and local and state agencies, when trenching projects are planned, is a good thing.
SB 584, authored by John Moorlach (R – Orange) was killed behind closed doors by the senate appropriations committee. It began the most ambitious undergrounding bill, earmarking $400 million a year to pay for utility line relocation. It was subsequently watered down to “an unspecified amount”, and finally left behind when legislative leaders cleared the appropriation committee’s suspense file.
Assembly bill 281, by Jim Frazier (D – Contra Costa) didn’t go anywhere either. It died without a hearing in the assembly utilities and energy committee. New rules this year allow committee chairs to simply ignore legislation they, or the lobbyists that stuff cash in their pockets provide them with sage advice, don’t like. In its various forms it would have loosened environmental reviews of undergrounding projects and/or given the California Public Utilities Commission the job of requiring utilities to move lines underground in high fire risk areas.
CAL FIRE has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area.
The fire started in the early morning hours near the community of Pulga in Butte County. The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico.
The investigation identified a second ignition sight near the intersection of Concow Rd. and Rim Rd. The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E.
That conclusion is backed by a full report, but consistent with past practice it’s been forwarded to the Butte County district attorney’s office for use in the ongoing criminal investigation into the blaze.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cal Fire thinks PG&E broke the law. Butte County DA Michael Ramsey started his own criminal investigation last November, and the full report was sent to him. According to a Bay City News Service story, he won’t release it “until a final decision is made on whether to file criminal charges”.
Cal Fire’s conclusion comes as no surprise to PG&E, which has been working under the assumption that it will be held responsible for the Camp Fire, given the way California utility liability laws work. Even if PG&E (or any other electric or telecoms company that uses utility pole routes) did everything it was supposed to do, if its equipment started the fire, it has to pay the full damages.
Pacific Gas and Electric won’t face criminal charges for its role in starting several northern California fires in 2018. District attorneys in Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt and Lake counties announced that they can’t prove a case. According to a press release from Sonoma County district attorney Jill Ravitch, the necessary evidence burned up along with everything else…
The cases that were referred for prosecution all required proof that PG&E acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees. Under California law, criminal negligence requires proof of actions that are reckless and incompatible with a proper regard for human life, and any charges must be proven unanimously to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Proving PG&E failed in their duty to remove trees was made particularly difficult in this context as the locations where the fires occurred, and where physical evidence could have been located, were decimated by the fires.
Last year, Cal Fire determined that some of the many fires that roared through California’s wine country began when trees or other vegetation came into contact with PG&E electric lines. The deadliest fire – the Tubbs fire – which killed 22 people and spread as far as city neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, was not linked to PG&E’s equipment according to Cal Fire. That one was apparently started by electric lines strung across private property by the landowners.
So far, prosecutors in other counties affected by fires linked to PG&E infrastructure have declined to charge PG&E with crimes. But that’s cold comfort. Ravitch was careful to point out that “PG&E remains on federal criminal probation and is a defendant in many private civil cases arising out of the wildfires”, including one that the County of Sonoma is pursuing. The combined liability PG&E faces from those fires as well as last year’s even deadlier Camp Fire is expected to top $30 billion. Who gets paid and how much is now in the hands of a federal bankruptcy court.
Cal Fire’s official investigation isn’t over, but Pacific Gas and Electric has concluded that it was at least partly to blame for the Camp Fire in Butte County in November, which killed 86 people. In a financial filing yesterday, PG&E laid out the evidence from the transmission tower where the fire began, and the financial consequences…
The company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire…
On November 14, 2018, the company observed a broken C-hook attached to the separated suspension insulator that had connected the suspension insulator to a tower arm, along with wear at the connection point. In addition, a flash mark was observed on Tower :27/222 near where the transposition jumper was suspended and damage to the transposition jumper and suspension insulator was identified…
Based on these facts, the company is including a $10.5 billion pre-tax charge related to third-party claims in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire in its full-year and fourth-quarter 2018 financial results…
The company has taken a total of $14.0 billion in pre-tax charges related to the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2017 Northern California wildfires to date, which reflects the lower end of the range of estimated losses the company faces from such wildfires. The charges represent a portion of the previously announced estimate of potential wildfire liabilities, which could exceed more than $30 billion.
The bottom line: PG&E’s management and auditors believe there is “substantial doubt” about its and its parent corporation’s “ability to continue as going concerns”.
If indeed there is evidence that PG&E was negligent, or even simply made poor choices, the company faces a triple whammy. It’ll be blood in the water for the predatory bar, which no doubt expects to get the shark’s share of $30 billion plus, and it’s sure to test, if not break completely, the patience of the federal judge who is supervising PG&E probation, which stems from an earlier criminal conviction for deadly safety lapses.
Pacific Gas and Electric will cut off electricity more automatically, more thoroughly and over a wider area when “extreme fire risk conditions” are present. That’s one of the wildfire risk mitigation measures it promises to implement this year.
Along with five other privately owned Californian electric utilities, PG&E submitted its wildfire prevention plan to the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday. It says it will inspect more lines, cut down more trees and harden more equipment in the coming months and years, as well as aggressively turning off power when the threat of wildfires is high. The proactive power cuts will be greatly expanded, to include…
25,200 miles of low voltage distribution lines, up from 7,100 miles.
5,500 miles of transmission lines, up from 370 miles. Instead of limiting it to lines carrying 70 kilovolts or less, lines of up to 500 kilovolts will be cut off if necessary.
Potentially 5.4 million customer premises, up from 570,000 customers.
Areas that face an “elevated” fire threat, in addition to those that face an “extreme” one.
PG&E also says it will streamline “decision criteria to reduce the level of judgment in the criteria to the extent feasible”. In other words, reduce the opportunity for managers to dither over whether or not to cut power.
One result is predictable and entirely acceptable: more PG&E customers will complain because their power is off. That happened last year, when PG&E proactively cut power in some northern California communities in October. It’s not a huge leap of logic to suppose that the backlash made managers more reluctant to turn off the juice in November. High winds and dry conditions were present once again, and led to the Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
A PG&E transmission line is suspected of sparking that fire. Under the new plan, it could have been turned off – it was in a high risk area, conditions were extreme, and it was 110 kilovolts (within the new limit but over the old one) – and probably would have been if the decision had been based on automatic criteria rather than a subjective judgement call.
The plan will be reviewed by the CPUC and by the federal judge that’s supervising PG&E criminal probation. Judge William Alsup has been sharply critical of PG&E and suggested it should do many of the things proposed in the plan, although not all his suggestions were included in it.
The wildfire prevention plan notwithstanding, yesterday was not a good day for PG&E. A natural gas line exploded in San Francisco and set several buildings on fire. There were no reports of injuries. It was apparently caused when a fiber optic construction crew hit a gas line. Whenever underground construction work is done, the contractor is supposed to notify PG&E and other utilities, which are then responsible for coming out and marking where their lines are. That’s a job that PG&E is accused of shirking in the past by the CPUC. Responsibility for yesterday’s blast is yet to be determined.
A federal judge lambasted Pacific Gas and Electric’s and the California Public Utilities Commission’s wildfire prevention efforts, and the California supreme court allowed a key wildfire cost sharing decision by the CPUC to stand yesterday. That follows PG&E’s bankruptcy filing on Tuesday.
Judge William Alsup is PG&E’s probation officer. The corporation was convicted of criminal misconduct following a deadly natural gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010, and it is accountable to Alsup for how well it’s complying with the penalties handed down, which include good behavior requirements. Alsup thinks PG&E is a danger to the public, and he doesn’t have a high opinion of the CPUC’s efforts to rein it in. According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News by Matthias Gafni and John Woolfolk, representatives from both PG&E and the CPUC tried to convince Alsup that his proposal to require PG&E to inspect more than 100,000 miles of electric lines before this summer’s fire season begins is a bad idea. He wasn’t buying any of it…
“Does a judge turn a blind eye and let PG&E continue what you’re doing, let you keep killing people?” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said inside the San Francisco courtroom. “Can’t we have electricity that is delivered safely in this state?”…
The judge also questioned the California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency charged with regulating PG&E and other investor-owned utilities.
“How did it happen so many fires occurred under your regulations?” Alsup asked a representative of the state regulator. “It sounds harsh, but that’s what the people of California deserve to know, how did that happen?”
After three intense hours, Alsup told the parties he would rule later, but the state of California did not have time to waste with another fire season approaching.
Alsup hinted he might require PG&E to use the same, aggressive power cutting tactics that San Diego Gas and Electric uses when wildfire danger is high. SDG&E began proactively de-energising lines after wildfires in 2007 that it and Cox Communications were responsible for starting.
Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, beginning a process that could lead to significant changes in how electricity and natural gas service is delivered in northern California, and how much it costs. It also has the potential for changing the cost sharing calculations that determine how much telecoms companies pay to share poles and conduit with PG&E.
As part of the filings, PG&E also filed various motions with the Court in support of its reorganization, including requesting authorization to continue paying employee wages and providing healthcare and other benefits. In the filings, PG&E also asked for authority to continue existing customer programs, including low income support, energy efficiency and other programs supporting customer adoption of clean energy. PG&E expects the Court to act on these requests in the coming days.
Translation: if you work for us, don’t make assumptions about your paycheck or benefits package for the time being, and if you’re relying on rents extracted by the CPUC or California legislature, make contingency plans.
It’s not time to push the panic button – an experienced bankruptcy judge won’t start slashing and burning – but it isn’t the time to rely on old certainties either. A new U.S. marshal just rode into town, and hasn’t decided whether the local sheriff is the solution or the problem.
Monday, in an emergency meeting held amidst a crowd of raucous protestors, the CPUC gave PG&E permission to borrow more money, which it will have to do to pay for operations during the bankruptcy proceedings – so called debtor in possession financing.
The CPUC also filed a brief with the federal judge overseeing PG&E compliance with criminal sanctions resulting from the deadly San Bruno natural gas explosion in 2010. According to Politico, the CPUC objected to a hugely expensive electric line inspection throughout PG&E’s territory proposed by judge William Alsup, arguing “the proposal interferes with their oversight and would endanger public safety”. It’s arguable whether Alsup’s idea would help or hinder public safety, but there’s no question that it shoves the CPUC aside. Which might be why he’s proposing it: CPUC oversight did not prevent the San Bruno explosion or the Camp Fire or any of the other fires, deadly or otherwise, that PG&E is implicated in.
The future of northern California’s energy supply, and the utility pole routes that support it, will be largely in the hands of federal judges. Pacific Gas and Electric gave notice yesterday that it will, in all likelihood, file for bankruptcy protection in two weeks. The company said that it may have to pay as much as $30 billion in damages stemming from catastrophic wildfires it apparently played a role in starting in 2017 and 2018. That’s about three times more than the company was worth before its stock price nosedived on the news. A federal bankruptcy court will have to decide how to carve up whatever is available, and who gets control of the carcass.
Another federal judge is assuming an oversight role that, in theory, the California Public Utilities Commission is supposed to fill. Last week, judge William Alsup gave PG&E until the end of the month to come up with a plan for inspecting the more than 100,000 miles of electric lines it operates in California before the next fire season begins in June. He’s essentially PG&E’s probation officer, following the corporation’s of criminal conviction related to a natural gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010.
So far, the CPUC hasn’t made any comment about PG&E bankruptcy plans or Alsup’s encroachment on its turf. Last month, CPUC president Michael Picker launched an investigation that could result in PG&E break up, or a takeover by the state, or any number of other fates. Or could have, before financial markets, trial lawyers and the federal judiciary got tired of waiting. At the time, Picker stated in a press release that “this process will be like repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight. Crashing a plane to make it safer isn’t good for the passengers”.
Yesterday, PG&E said the plane is going down. All we passengers can do is assume the position, and hope for the best.
With liabilities from California wildfires amounting to unknown billions of dollars, Pacific Gas and Electric company announced this morning that it plans to file for bankruptcy as soon as it’s legally able to do so. According to a company press release…
The Company today provided the 15-day advance notice required by recently enacted California law that it and its wholly owned subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Company (the “Utility”) currently intend to file petitions to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on or about January 29, 2019.
Governor Gavin Newsom released a statement saying he’s been engaged with the problem over the weekend…
The company should continue to honor promises made to energy suppliers and to our community. Throughout the months ahead, I will be working with the Legislature and all stakeholders on a solution that ensures consumers have access to safe, affordable and reliable service, fire victims are treated fairly, and California can continue to make progress toward our climate goals.
No reaction yet from the California Public Utilities Commission.