PG&E Says New Power Shutoff Protocol May Avert Dixie-Like Fires

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(Bloomberg) — PG&E Corp. told a judge it has put into place new safety measures that would have resulted in power being cut to a utility line suspected of sparking the second-largest wildfire in California history.

The California utility giant said it changed safety settings on its equipment so electricity can be shut off more quickly in the case of a disturbance or fault on certain lines located in high-fire risk areas, according to a court filing submitted Friday. The move was made after the start of the Dixie Fire in July to help reduce the threat of major wildfires in California in light of the extreme drought conditions and dry vegetation, PG&E said.

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U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the company’s criminal probation, has been probing the company’s role in the Dixie Fire and why it didn’t turn off power sooner to the line linked to the start of the blaze. It took a PG&E worker almost 10 hours after an initial report of an outage to discover flames near a tree that had fallen into a line.

Alsup questioned the worker, known as a troubleman, during a hearing Monday. The worker said he didn’t see signs of a fire or the fallen tree until he arrived at the scene, hours after he had been asked to respond to the power outage at the Cresta Dam, located in the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento.   

PG&E said that its policies at the time of the Dixie Fire didn’t require cutting energy to a line where was no visible indication of an imminent safety risk or critical fire weather conditions, according to its filing Friday. PG&E also said outages in high-fire risk areas are fairly common and that any de-energization carries its own disruption and safety issues for customers.

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Alsup had asked PG&E if it was plausible that the tree that fell on the line could have caused a ground fault with electricity from the live wire flowing through it and eventually igniting it. The company said the “scenario put forth by the court is plausible, and at this time PG&E is not aware of evidence indicating that such a scenario is wrong.” PG&E added that it doesn’t have access to evidence collected by fire investigators and it is unable to reach a conclusion as to what happened. 

Read More: PG&E Pleads Guilty to Killing 84 People in 2018 Camp Fire

The stakes are mounting for PG&E if it’s found at fault for the Dixie Fire and others that have ravaged Northern California in recent years. The company is fighting criminal charges for a 2019 fire and facing a criminal probe for a 2020 blaze. Alsup’s scrutiny could put additional pressure on state regulators to escalate their oversight of the company. Meanwhile, if PG&E is found to have willfully disregarded public safety, it may be denied protection in a California wildfire insurance fund. 

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The Dixie Fire has consumed more than 960,000 acres while burning most of the Gold Rush-era town of Greenville. It was the first blaze in state history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other. The wildfire has destroyed 1,329 structures and resulted in one death, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The cause of the fire, which is 86% contained, remains under investigation.

Separately, the state utility regulators said on Friday they are proposing to adopt specific metrics to evaluate PG&E’s safety performance. State regulators are also weighing whether to put PG&E into the second step of a six-step enhanced oversight process that could eventually lead to state control of the utility if it fails to reform itself. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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