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Cal Fire Finds PG&E Equipment Responsible For Several Wildfires

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 10, 2018 2:13 pm
Copyright 2018 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a story out of California. Fire officials there now blame many of last fall's wildfires in Northern California on problems with power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hazardous condition, electric power lines down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Powerlines down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A live powerline is rolling over the street, right field.

MARTIN: That's dispatch tape from the night, last October, when more than 170 fires broke out across the region destroying thousands of homes and killing 44 people. Sukey Lewis of member station KQED in San Francisco covered the wildfires, and she's with us now to talk about the recent findings. Sukey, thanks so much for being here.

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So the state fire agency's investigation released its report yesterday. Tell us what they found.

LEWIS: So they found that a dozen of these fires were caused by electrical problems. And that night, there were reports of arcing power lines, exploding transformers, and those started pouring in even as the fires were still burning. Now, Cal Fire is saying that all of the fires they've looked at so far - and that 16 were caused by trees hitting PG&E power lines and issues with their conductors and power poles.

MARTIN: Could PG&E face repercussions for this and what could those be?

LEWIS: Yes, they could face severe repercussions and there are billions of dollars in damages from these fires. More than 150 lawsuits have already been filed against PG&E on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs, and that includes survivors and municipalities. Attorney John Fiske, who I talked to, is representing the counties and cities hit by wildfire. He says the results of Cal Fires investigation confirm what his lawsuit alleges.

JOHN FISKE: Which is that PG&E has a systemic problem with its vegetation management, practices, and policies. And we think that systemic problem comes from the top down.

LEWIS: And he's saying that the company has put profits over safety.

MARTIN: Has PG&E had safety problems before?

LEWIS: Yes, one of PG&E's gas pipelines in San Bruno exploded back in 2010, killing eight people. The company faced massive penalties in that case, but the 2017 firestorms were even more deadly and far more destructive.

MARTIN: Could there be criminal charges against this company?

LEWIS: It's possible. Some of these state investigations have been referred to prosecutors for review. So local district attorneys will have to take a look and decide if there's enough evidence to charge PG&E.

MARTIN: Has the company responded? What are they saying?

LEWIS: Yes. In a statement, PG&E said it looks forward to the opportunity to carefully review the reports. And the company says it believes it met the state standards and points to climate change as a reason for why these fires were so bad.

MARTIN: Even with that, has the utility changed anything about how it operates after these fires?

LEWIS: Yes. There are already a number of changes being made. You know, at KQED we investigated these fires and we found out that high winds actually started knocking down trees and causing issues with power lines hours before the fires started, but fire officials and PG&E were slow to react. They didn't identify the problem, and they didn't shut down the power lines at that point. And those problems built on each other over the course of the night sparking more and more fires. So now, PG&E says in some high-wind situations, it's going to shut down the power ahead of time to prevent electrical fires from starting.

MARTIN: So, Sukey, before we let you go, have the causes of all those Northern California wildfires from last fall that was the subject of so much concern and anxiety, have the causes of all of those been determined now?

LEWIS: Not yet. The latest report only covers a dozen fires. There were four more that the - that they investigated. But the big one is still yet to be determined and that's the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County that killed 22 people.

MARTIN: That is Sukey Lewis of member station KQED. Thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.