California regulators have issued two staff citations totaling $8.3 million to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. related to the Butte Fire that destroyed hundreds of homes and claimed the lives of two Calaveras County residents in 2015.
The citations would be the largest ever levied against an electricity provider under the California Public Utilities Commission’s electric safety program that was created in December 2014. The CPUC announced the fines in a news release Wednesday.
Brandi Merlo, spokeswoman for PG&E, stated in an email that the state’s largest utility had received the citations from the CPUC and was in the process of reviewing them. The company has until May 25 to pay or contest the citations.
“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims and the communities who suffered losses as a result of the Butte fire,” Merlo stated. “From the beginning, we have been committed to doing the right thing in regard to claims, many of which already have been addressed and resolved.”
Merlo said PG&E wouldn’t comment any further on the citations at this time.
The Butte Fire ignited Sept. 9, 2015, near Butte Mountain Road in Jackson. It burned more than 70,868 acres, killed two people, injured another, and destroyed 921 structures, including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties, according to the news release.
Total insured losses were estimated by the California Department of Insurance at more than $300 million, though total damage to Calaveras County has been estimated at more than $1 billion.
A report released by Cal Fire in April 2016 determined the deadly blaze was sparked by a gray pine that came into contact with a PG&E power line conductor. Investigators blamed the pine’s failure on the removal of two nearby trees by PG&E and/or its subcontractors months before the fire.
The CPUC issued an $8 million citation to PG&E for allegedly failing to identify that the removal of the two nearby trees would allow the gray pine to become a potential hazard.
A second citation for $300,000 was for allegedly failing to maintain the minimum required clearance of at least 18 inches between the conductor and tree at all times, as well as failing to report that PG&E’s facilities may have been linked to the fire’s ignition.
The CPUC alleged that PG&E had become aware of the possible link no later than Sept. 11, 2015, but didn’t notify the commission until five days later on Sept. 16, 2015. Such notification to the CPUC is required within two hours of discovery during normal business hours, or within four hours outside of normal business hours.
According to the news release, the CPUC is in the process of developing maps that depict areas of the state where there’s an elevated risk for rapidly spreading fires sparked by power lines. The goal is to use the maps to accurately identify high-risk areas and determine the need for additional fire-safety regulations in those areas.
The CPUC, with the help of Cal Fire, utility-fire experts and independent fire and climatology experts, expects to complete the maps and consider the additional regulations by the end of the year.
A new state law approved last year now requires electricity providers to maintain their electrical lines in a way that minimizes the risk for catastrophic wildfires. It also requires providers to prepare annual plans to mitigate the risk, which the CPUC will be tasked with evaluating and monitoring for compliance.
According to the website for the CPUC’s electric safety program, PG&E has received citations totaling $500,000 since 2015 for two separate incidents. The utility has also been issued a total of about $26 million in citations under the commission’s pipeline safety program that was created in December 2011 for natural-gas companies.
PG&E bills itself as one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States, with nearly 16 million customers in Northern and Central California.
The San Francisco-based company collected $17.6 billion in revenue and paid nearly $1 billion in dividends to shareholders last year, according to an annual financial report.
In 2015, the CPUC slapped PG&E with a $1.6 billion fine — the largest ever against a utility in United States history — over a 2010 natural-gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and leveled dozens of homes.
Court documents stated there are now 56 civil complaints that have been filed against PG&E and its tree contractors in relation to the Butte Fire, involving more than 2,000 people from 1,170 households.
Elliot Adler, of Singleton-Adler Butte Fire Lawyers, said a Sacramento County Superior Court judge recently said a trial should move forward in August for eight people under a state law that allows people 70 or older and with serious medical conditions to have their cases fast tracked.
According to documents from a recent case-management conference, PG&E has already settled claims from 178 households. Merlo wasn’t immediately able to confirm the total amount of money agreed to be paid as part of the settlements.
“PG&E has settled a lot of cases, and we hope they continue doing that,” said Adler. “We’re trying to assist our clients to become whole again, and PG&E has demonstrated a desire to want to settle these cases.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.