A state legislator says that if Pacific Gas and Electric Company is found at fault for how the deadly, destructive Northern California fires started in October 2017, the utility giant with roots in the Mother Lode’s Gold Rush era should be broken up.
The fires broke out a month ago today, Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9, in multiple counties, including Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Mendocino and Yuba, killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 8,000 homes and other structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. They are among the deadliest fires in California history.
No official causes or final determination of causes in the fires have been released, but more than 100 people in Sonoma County alone have already joined legal actions alleging Pacific Gas and Electric’s poor maintenance of its high-voltage power lines caused the October fires.
“If we find that in this particular case — and we don’t know the cause yet — then frankly I don’t think PG&E should do business in California anymore,” State Sen. Jerry Hill told reporters in San Francisco in mid-October. “They’ve crossed the line too many times. They need to be dissolved in some way, split.”
Hill represents District 13, the south San Francisco Peninsula that includes San Bruno, and he chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Gas, Electric and Transportation Safety. He cites the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County, the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, and the 1994 Trauner Fire near Rough and Ready as examples of PG&E reducing spending on safety margins, which contributed to or caused disasters.
“The most troubling thing to me is they have a bad habit of diverting money or creating internal incentive programs that take money away from vegetation management and divert it to bonuses and profits for the company,” Hill said in a phone interview this week. “They cut corners and save money. Saved money is used for incentives for executives and extra profits for the company. They have a monopoly.”
Pacific Gas and Electric Company is an investor-owned utility with publicly traded stock, headquartered in San Francisco. This week PG&E claims market capitalization exceeding $28.9 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Its share price plunged more than 20 percent shortly after the Wine Country fires broke out, erasing about $6 billion of the utility’s value.
Asked for perspective this week, Ari Vanrenen with PG&E corporate communications responded at length but avoided questions about Hill’s suggestion that the utility giant could be broken up.
“Since the start of the devastating Northern California wildfires on Oct. 8, our primary focus has been — and continues to be — the safety and well-being of the customers and communities that have been affected,” Vanrenen said Tuesday via email.
Pacific Gas and Electric won’t speculate on the cause of the fires, while investigations by Cal Fire, the California Public Utilities Commission and multiple law enforcement agencies are ongoing, Vanrenen said.
“PG&E will continue to comply with requests of the CPUC and others to preserve evidence,” Vanrenen said. “This is standard practice.”
The utility dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of workforce hours to help reduce electrical outages and wildfire risks through its Electric Vegetation Management Program, Vanrenen said.
“This is just one part of the many programs PG&E has in place to improve the safety and reliability of our service to our customers,” Vanrenen said.
The utility meets or exceeds state and federal vegetation clearance requirements and performs regular power line tree safety activities in accordance with industry standards, guidelines and procedures to reduce outages and fires caused by trees and other vegetation, Vanrenen said.
In addition, PG&E inspects and monitors every overhead electric transmission and distribution line each year, with some locations patrolled multiple times, Vanrenen said. The utility is accountable for 81,000 miles of distribution lines and 18,000 miles of distribution lines.
Vanrenen says PG&E prunes or removes about 1.4 million trees annually.
Since 2013, the utility spokesman said, PG&E has spent about $1.6 billion on vegetation management programs to reduce power outages and wildfire risks. From 2013 to 2017, the utility has invested as much as $946 million in distribution vegetation management, $185 million in transmission vegetation management, and $450 million in tree mortality response efforts.
In Sonoma County
Statistics and spending totals have not quelled the fears of many Wine Country residents whose homes were spared by the same October fires that leveled entire residential neighborhoods, apartment buildings, resorts and big-box stores.
A resident of Cloverdale, about 30 miles north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, reached out to The Union Democrat last week to complain about lack of brush clearance in his community.
“I’ve been trying to get PG&E, Cal Fire, Cloverdale Fire Department to do something about all this,” Marty Wysinger said. “Trees and brush around the telephone poles and covering the road, but I just get the runaround. I’ve been trying for five months now.”
Wysinger sent photos to show what he portrays as a looming public safety threat to lives and property, even as most of the October fires have been contained.
"As you can see, they are powerlines and trees going through and the whole street is overgrown and I can’t get anyone to do anything about it,” Wysinger said. “If there was a fire, we would be trapped like rats.”
In the Mother Lode
Public affairs staff with Pacific Gas and Electric said last week the utility is still paying citation fines, settling claims and preparing for trials stemming from the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County. Citation fines against PG&E stemming from the Butte Fire include two totaling $8.3 million issued in April.
The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine contacted a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road in Amador County and caused ignition that started the fire, according to a CPUC investigation.
The fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures: 549 homes, 368 outbuildings, and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures, and resulted in two civilian fatalities and one injury.
Both people who died were residents of Calaveras County who refused to evacuate the area as recommended by local authorities, according to the CPUC investigation. Coroner’s reports indicated the cause of death for both victims was consumption by fire: residential conflagration.
Pacific Gas and Electric touts its roots in the Mother Lode’s Gold Rush era. Aside from hundreds of miles of power lines, it owns numerous dams, reservoirs, powerhouses and conveyances in Tuolumne County, including Pinecrest, Lyons and the Tuolumne Main Canal that carries water from the South Fork Stanislaus River for most of Tuolumne County’s population.
In Calaveras and Amador counties, PG&E owns Salt Springs Dam and Salt Springs Reservoir on the North Fork Mokelumne River. The utility also owns water and power infrastructure in other Sierra foothill counties, including Butte, Plumas, Placer, Amador, Madera and Fresno counties, and elsewhere in the Golden State.
Billed as a water and wastewater utility serving 44,000 residents in Tuolumne County, TUD relies on PG&E for its most vital resource.
Any move to break up PG&E would place numerous questions before multiple water agencies that cooperate with the utility giant to ensure their water supplies, including Tuolumne Utilities District.
Whatever happens with investigations of the causes of the Wine Country fires, Hill and other state lawmakers announced Oct. 30 they plan to introduce legislation in January to prevent electric utilities found culpable in wildfires from passing those claim costs not covered by insurance, fines and penalties, on to customers.
“It has been said that PG&E is perhaps too big to fail, similar to what we saw in the banking crisis in 2008,” Hill said this week. “But we can’t allow them to carry on if this pattern continues. We have the Butte Fire, we have San Bruno, we have Rough and Ready, and we can’t condone this and conduct business as usual any longer.”