Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the embattled utility facing investigations and blame for its alleged roles in igniting some of the deadliest, most destructive fires in California history, is now helping fund installation of fire surveillance cameras in the same watersheds where the 2015 Butte Fire started in Amador County and blew up to become the costliest disaster in Calaveras County records.

The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine came into contact with a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County, and caused ignition that started the fire, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation determined.

The fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures and resulted in two civilian fatalities and one injury. It was declared contained Oct. 1, 2015.

Remote-controlled fire surveillance cameras, funded in part by PG&E to improve its wildfire prevention and emergency response efforts, will be installed in Amador and Calaveras counties to help Pacific Gas & Electric, Cal Fire and other authorities get early warnings of wildfires and keep track of firefighting efforts and evacuations when necessary.

A network totaling as many as five fire cameras is expected to be installed in the next three months, said Frank Leschinsky, public sector manager with Volcano Communications Group in Pine Grove, Amador County, and the Amador Fire Safe Council director.

Pacific Gas & Electric is helping fund the camera installations, said Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications. Information on how much the utility is spending on cameras was not available.

Leschinsky says Volcano Communications has one camera installed at Leek Springs Lookout, a fire lookout on a high hill with a lookout tower in Amador County. Volcano Communications has plans to partner with a program called ALERTWildifre to put three more cameras on existing Volcano Communications towers in West Point in Calaveras County, and in Pioneer and Ione in Amador County.

Leschinsky said Cal Fire plans to install a fire camera on Mount Zion in Pine Grove. Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit staff have not responded to questions about fire cameras.

ALERTWildfire is a partnership of the University of Nevada, Reno, University of California, San Diego, and the University of Oregon. They said access to pan-tilt-zoom fire cameras and associated tools will help firefighters and first responders discover, locate and confirm fire ignitions, quickly scale fire resources up or down, monitor fire behavior through containment, and ensure contained fires are monitored.

Pacific Gas and Electric has faced investigations, penalties, lawsuits and settlements in recent years due to its alleged roles in starting some of the deadliest, most destructive fires in state history, including the Camp Fire in November in Butte County, the Wine Country fires last year, and the 2015 Butte Fire.

Merlo said all fire cameras funded by PG&E are or will be located in high fire-risk areas.

“By 2022, we plan to deploy more than 600 high-definition cameras, establishing coverage across high fire-risk areas to roughly 90 percent,” Merlo said Christmas Eve this week.

During firestorms, pan-tilt-zoom fire cameras can help authorities oversee evacuations with “enhanced situational awareness” of firestorm variables including speed, direction and fuel loads, according to ALERTWildfire communications staff.

Graham Kent with University of Nevada, Reno, said there are other funding sources in addition to PG&E. The bottom line is the public doesn’t have to pay for the fire cameras, according to Leschinsky and Kent.

Kent said fire cameras in other locations in Southern California and Oregon have “played a hugely positive role in protecting assets as firefighter folks have told us.”

Leschinsky said University of Nevada, Reno has funding to deploy more cameras, and his goal is to install more in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, if Tuolumne County wants to take part.

ALERTWildfire grew out of a pilot program called ALERTTahoe that deploys pan-tilt-zoom cameras and microwave networks in the Lake Tahoe area. The initial project was funded through the Nevada Seismological Laboratory at University of Nevada, Reno, the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the Eldorado National Forest, and the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

A contract with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management expanded the network east into northern Nevada, where the BLM Wildland Fire Camera Project was born, according to ALERTWildfire staff.

In the summers of 2014 through 2016, new contracts with the Oregon-Washington and the Idaho Bureaus of Land Management and with San Diego Gas and Electric provided expansion of cameras and microwave locations. Construction continued this year in Sonoma County, Orange County, and other locations in five states, according to ALERTWildfire staff.

During the fire seasons of 2016 and 2017, ALERTWildfire cameras provided critical information on more than 350 fires, including a dozen in California and an arson spree in Lake Tahoe.

Remote-control cameras may help people get more information about fires as they are burning, but it’s unclear if they will help salvage PG&E.

On Wednesday, MarketWatch.com said PG&E Corp. shares fell 4.8 percent in the wake of a recent report that the California Public Utilities Commission has initiated a process to decide if the utility company should be split up. The report by Bloomberg News said regulators are concerned about potential liabilities PG&E is facing from its roles in recent fires that killed more than three dozen people and caused billions in property damage. PG&E has acknowledged one of its power lines was damaged before the outbreak of the deadly Camp Fire last month. Causes of the fires are still under investigation. PG&E stock has fallen about 51 percent in 2018, compared to an 11 percent overall decline for the Standard & Poor 500.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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