PG&E and the Causes of the Wine Country Fires

By Lambert Strether of .

Last month, I looked at PG&E and Northern California fires collectively known as , and related past Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) fires to inadequate tree-trimming (“vegetation management”) and concluded:

In Puerto Rico, lack of tree trimming caused by an austerity regime imposed by the Obama administration acting on behalf of Wall Street caused the complete collapse of Puerto Rico’s grid. In California, a pattern of lack of tree trimming caused by the profit motive led to collapsed power lines and fires in the Sierra Blaze, the Pendola Fire, the Butte Fire, and quite possibly the Wine Country. If the relation between the PUC and PG&E is as cozy as the San Bruno Pipeline Explosion and Clopton’s whistleblower suit suggest, the truth of the matter may be hard to come by. But maybe we’ll get lucky!

One way to get lucky is, of course, through a lawsuit, of which against PG&E. And yes, the suits — the litigation, not the litigants — are focusing on tree-trimming. From :

A coalition of plaintiffs firms has sued Pacific Gas & Electric claiming the utility company’s lackluster maintenance of power lines, poles, and the brush beneath them played a major role in sparking the wildfires that ravaged Northern California’s wine country last month.

Forty-three people died and about 100,000 people were displaced after wildfires burned about 200,000 acres and destroyed about 8,000 structures across North Bay counties.

Attorneys at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy; Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora; Panish Shea & Boyle; Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger; and Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery filed three separate lawsuits in San Francisco Superior Court Tuesday on behalf of families affected by the fires, claiming PG&E knew its electrical infrastructure was aging and ineffective at preventing wildfires.

Pitre said Tuesday that part of the motivation behind the current lawsuits is to allow investigators hired by the law firms to access evidence that Cal Fire and PG&E collected so that they can make an independent assessment of what caused the blazes. “We have serious concerns about relying on a company that has previously been convicted of misleading the NTSB,” Pitre said.

Luck being the residue of design, we can hope those independent assessments make their way into the press and have beneficial effects on public policy.

Meanwhile — and who can blame them? — PG&E is preparing (and leaking) its defense. From :

The deadliest and most destructive of last month’s Wine Country wildfires may have been started by electrical equipment not owned or installed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the utility said in a legal filing Thursday.

The filing states that while California fire investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, “preliminary investigations suggest that this fire might have been caused by electrical equipment that was owned, installed and maintained by a third party.”

On the preliminary investigations: (PG&E Incident No: 171026-8601) performed by a PG&E “compliance specialist” dated October 8, and submitted October 26. The incident location is Calistoga, where (one of the Wine Country Fires) started on October 8. Regarding the third party electrical equipment:

Note the description of the equipment is given only at the point where CalFire takes possession of it on the 26th; all we have on the 8th is the cryptic “Damage? Yes” (with nothing else filled in; reasonable, since the equipment was not PG&E’s). There’s also no indication of the cause of the damage. (Could it be poor tree-trimming, this time on private property?) There is also a mention of PG&E equipment, not damaged at all, from which the defense might infer that the private equipment started the fires, given that the PG&E equipment was undamaged, but I don’t see how we can infer that without knowing what the PG&E equipment was; the incident report does not say. So there is a good deal to be brought out in depositions and testimony (and there are at least a dozen other fires the defense must account for, not just the Tubbs Fire).

But assume the Tubbs Fire was started by private equipment. Does that mean that PG&E is off the hook? Under “man in the dock” theories of blame, yes. Taking a more systemic view, no.

Here is the regulatory state of play on Fire Safety Rulemaking at the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC). I’m quoting a great slab of it so you get the flavor of it. :

Most of the new regulations consist of new or revised rules in . Several of the new regulations rely on maps that designate areas where there is an elevated hazard for powerline fires to occur and spread rapidly (fire-threat maps). These regulations include:

  • GO 95, Rule 18A, which requires electric utilities and communication infrastructure providers (CIPs) to place a high priority on the correction of significant fire hazards in high fire-threat areas of Southern California.
  • GO 95, Rules 31.2, 80.1A, and 90.1B, which set the minimum frequency for inspections of aerial communication facilities located in close proximity to power lines in high fire-threat areas throughout California.
  • GO 95, Rule 35, Table 1, Case 14, which requires increased radial clearances between bare-line conductors and vegetation in high fire-threat areas of Southern California.
  • GO 95, Appendix E, which authorizes increased time-of-trim clearances between bare-line conductors and vegetation in high fire-threat areas of Southern California.
  • GO 165, Appendix A, Table 1, which requires more frequent patrol inspections of overhead powerline facilities in rural, high fire-threat areas of Southern California.
  • GO 166, Standard 1.E., which requires each electric utility in Southern California to develop and submit a plan to reduce the risk of fire ignitions by overhead facilities in high fire-threat areas during extreme fire-weather events. Electric utilities in Northern California must also develop and submit a plan if they have overhead facilities in high fire-threat areas that are subject to extreme fire-weather events.

(So, a lot of planning, inspection, and vegetation management.) Obviously, maps (or even live, dynamic representations from Geographic Information Systems) are an excellent way to keep track of things on the ground like powerlines, trees, and where powerlines are close to trees, so you know which trees to trim. If you want to get fancy, you’d integrate drought information, so you could deploy resources not only to where trees were close to powerlines, but where they were close, and dry, hence flammable. (I’m sure GIS buffs can come up with many more cases.) Note the word “maps,” plural. There isn’t just one map. Again the CPUC:

The regulations identified above require a map to designate “high fire-threat areas” where these regulations apply. There are now three surrogate fire-threat maps that together are called the “Interim Fire-Threat Maps.”

Obviously, regulatory efforts that “rely on maps” that are “interim” “surrogates” (!) risk outcomes that are less than ideal, and the CPUC has undertaken to create a single, unified, master map:

In 2012, the CPUC ordered the development of a map that is designed specifically for the purpose of identifying areas where there is an increased risk for utility associated wildfires….The development of the CPUC’s fire-threat map was bifurcated into Fire Map 1 (FM 1) followed by Fire Map 2. FM 1 is a statewide map that depicts areas of California where there is an elevated hazard for the ignition and rapid spread of powerline fires due to strong winds, abundant dry vegetation, and other environmental conditions. These are the environmental conditions associated with the catastrophic powerline fires that burned 334 square miles of Southern California in October 2007. FM 1 served as the foundation for the development of Fire Map 2 (FM 2), which is currently in progress. FM 2 will delineate the boundaries of a new High Fire-Threat District where utility infrastructure and operations will be subject to stricter fire‑safety regulations. Importantly, the development of FM 2 will (1) incorporate fire hazards associated with historical powerline wildfires besides the October 2007 fires in Southern California (e.g., the Butte Fire that burned 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras Counties in September 2015), and (2) rank fire-threat areas based on the risks that utility-associated wildfires pose to people and property.

(. GIS buffs?) FM 2 sounds neat; preventing “catastrophic powerline fires” is always neat. This is 2017 (not 2012). Why isn’t Fire Map 2 already in place?

Fire Map 2 is not in place because PG&E (along with the other utilities) have stalled it. From :

PG&E helped stall effort to map risky power lines prone to wildfires

For the better part of a decade, California’s utilities have helped to stall the state’s effort to map where their power lines present the highest risk for wildfires, an initiative that critics say could have forced PG&E to strengthen power poles and bolster maintenance efforts before this month’s deadly North Bay fires….

A review of the mapping project by the Bay Area News Group shows that utilities have repeatedly asked to slow down the effort and argued as recently as July that, as PG&E put it, certain proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”…

[Sen. Jerry Hill, D-Redwood City] and other critics have characterized the years-long state regulatory efforts as a long, meandering slog, with hundreds of utilities, telecommunication companies, internet providers and other stakeholders fighting over proposed regulations that could add significant costs to their bottom line….

In October 2016, PG&E complained to a judge that the PUC’s plans to complete the map by March of this year was “too aggressive.” And in July, the utility called a proposed regulation to increase the wind speed that power poles must sustain “arbitrary.”…

A pair of administrative judges tried to shepherd the utilities along, but they continued to pick away at regulations and map criteria…

This year, after a March 31 deadline came and went, PG&E, Southern California Edison Company and PacifiCorp complained that the intention to highlight vulnerable power infrastructure on the final map “could present public safety and security issues.”…

In July, PG&E also fought a number of regulatory proposals. The company, for example, said it didn’t want to have to comply with any new wildfire regulations within a proposed six-month deadline — and preferred a year to get up to speed.

State officials began working to tighten regulations on utilities and create the detailed maps after wind-toppled electrical lines in 2007 ignited catastrophic fires in the San Diego area. But nearly 10 years later, the state Public Utilities Commission — which initiated the process — still hasn’t finished the maps, let alone adopted strict new regulations.

So, from a systemic perspective, even if PG&E wasn’t responsible for the private equipment that they claim started the Tubbs fire, they are very much responsible for retarding the mapping system that could have flagged that private equipment as a problem.[1] Metaphorically, PG&E didn’t toss the match, but they made sure that the electrical system wasn’t up to code, that there weren’t any fire extinguishers, and that there weren’t any “In Case of FIre” signs to the exits. (I should also mention that the CPUC seems to be lacking the sort of aggression I’d expect from a regulatory body with such important duties. Perhaps they’re

And here we are:

(.)

I’m sure we’ll hear more about PG&E and the Wine Country fires, especially if the lawyers have their way. And rightly!

NOTES

[1] I have to assume that FIre Map 2 will map all power lines, public and private. Otherwise, given the Tubbs Fire, what’s the point?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

20 comments

  1. Ned

    More frightening than a little old fire that just kills less than half a hundred people is the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors that sit atop a complex of earthquake faults upwind of San Luis Obispo. These too are maintained by PG&E.

    The PG&E owned California Democratic Party has given them an extension of several years. Their cutout is Lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom who used his sinecure on the Coastal Land Commision—what else could they do with this guy, besides make him a understudy should Jerry Brown die?

    “In 2011, the California Energy Commission held hearings concerning the state’s nuclear safety. During those hearings, the Chairman of the Commission asked government experts whether or not they felt the state’s nuclear facilities could withstand the maximum credible quake. The response was that they didn’t know.

    The same year, KCET public television reported:
    PG&E Acknowledges Seismic Uncertainty at Diablo Canyon at Public Hearing, Maintains They Have No Concern.

    On Tuesday, The San Luis Obispo Tribune featured an article describing Diablo’s back-up cooling systems that are designed to function during an emergency similar to one experienced at Fukushima.

    Controversy relating to the Diablo plant was also featured in the Huffington Post where it was pointed out that PG&E was not required to include earthquake procedure in its emergency response plan.

    California State Senator Sam Blakeslee (R, San Luis Obispo, 15th District) is a geophysicist with a PhD in earthquake studies and is a member of the California State Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness. During this week’s hearing, he repeatedly asked PG&E to withdraw its license renewal application and perform a new seismic study of the [Diablo Canyon nuclear site]. The known presence of the Hosgri earthquake fault, two and a half miles away, and the newly detected fault that runs within a mile of the plant should be thoroughly charted and studied before PG&E applies for a license renewal.”

    “A senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California’s last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility’s twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from any one of several nearby earthquake faults.

    Michael Peck, who for five years was Diablo Canyon’s lead on-site inspector, says in a 42-page, confidential report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not applying the safety rules it set out for the plant’s operation.

    What’s striking about Peck’s analysis is that it comes from within the NRC itself ….

    The conflict between Peck and his superiors stems from the 2008 discovery of the Shoreline fault, which snakes offshore about 650 yards from the reactors. A larger crack, the Hosgri fault, had been discovered in the 1970s about 3 miles away, after the plant’s construction permits had been issued and work was underway. Surveys have mapped a network of other faults north and south of the reactors…”

    All links to the above here:

    1. willem

      This is not only off topic, but is extremely old news and way out of date with current status. A veritable tidal wave of actions and events have ensued since this was published 3 YEARS AGO.

  2. Jon S

    The GIS map in the link is too slow to be usable in my Chrome browser. It appears to be some ugly javascript that GOOG’s interpreter doesn’t like. It forced me to reconnect to NC.

  3. JBird

    Both the PUC and PG&E have been corrupt and deliberately incompetent for longer than I have been alive; I do not expect this to change before I die, which says some truly bad things about corruption in parts of the state, and municipal, government here.

  4. Patrick Donnelly

    Ignatius Donnelly decided that the “Great Chicago Fire” was caused by pockets of plasma.

    We can see the waves of plasma from the Sun on websites:

    When proton counts are high, we get flooding rain. A proton is actually Hydrogen and the name means “maker of water”.

    When the speed is high, without protons, then plasma will hit the earth, overloading metals and other conducters. A mini EMP, in fact.

    I consider we accept 400kms per second and 4 protons per second as normal. I have seen proton counts as high as 40 and speeds as high as 900kms per second. However, bear in mind we have no readings for the Carrington event in the 1880s, and that the highest speed measure for a CME is 0.25 of c, 75,000 kms per second. Even if we see the eruption, it takes 8 minutes for that to reach us and then the physical results reach us 24 minutes later. Probably before we have even measured the speed!

    Back burning in Australia by the Indigenous, mean that they could extensively farm without suffering the fires to which Australia is notoriously prone. Yet the USA cannot do this!?

    1. JBird

      A lot of people don’t like seeing those nasty burn areas and some fear having a fire getting out of control. Local, and I think state, fire departments have pushed for decades for them pointing out that having controlled burns with fire fighters on standby is very effective. People still slowdown or just prevent them.

      Then there is the problem that the whole state can be a red fire zone with much of it heavily forested and/or hilly/mountainous with patches of towns/communities especially in the northern and eastern parts. Add in the local ecology, which is adapted to the three months winter of often heavy rain with hot bone dry summers interspersed with multi-year droughts, so can seeds survive for years, or a very small numbers of plants hanging on and producing some seeds. That means after the first real rainy season we get a crazy amount of new growth. It’s rather like a desert after a rain. Add in the large number of dead plants and trees (even native California oaks had died which usually doesn’t happen). Further add in the common heavy dry winds. Here in California it’s not if we’ll have deadly, certainly destructive, fires; it’s when and where. Kinda like the floods, droughts, and the occasional earthquake.

    2. Synoia

      bear in mind we have no readings for the Carrington event in the 1880

      What a surprise. Did we even know about protons then?

    1. Sluggeaux

      The bad news is that the leading candidates to replace him, Newsom and Villaraigosa, make Governor Gandalf look like a relative choir-boy when it comes to corruption and obeisance to our neoliberal overlords. The joys of our One-Party State!

      We live in a culture where behaving like a responsible adult is for other people. I can hardly blame the average person for being infantilized by peonage and marginalized by elite greed. However, our so-called “leaders” should be the adults in the room. Instead they act like a pack of entitled frat-boys and sorority-girls running a chain-letter pyramid scheme.

      People died. Again.

      1. Ned

        Gavin Newsom, polishing the turd…

        No harassment charges for him, his campaign managers wife consensually slept with Grabin’.

        1. JBird

          The liberal political version of Elmer Gentry, Gavin “Good Hair” Newsom?

          What’s not to love?

          Seriously, I thought about supporting his campaign(s) until his shenanigans on gun control. Last year he got on the state ballot a measure that mostly rehashed laws that had just been signed into law. The only real difference was restrictive rules on buying ammunition such that it could make being able to practice enough to be competent difficult, but in no would stop a mass murderer. It also stirred everybody up with anger, fear, and hate.

          Still this is California.

          Then I did some further research and found out that most of the money being donated to the for the proposition’s campaign was ultimately going to him, or rather his personal campaign funds. If I hadn’t been such a poli sci geek, I would never have found out. It’s like they went out of their way not to inform anyone. Rather like how all the donations made to what ever level of the Democratic Party last year were mostly siphoned off to Clinton’s personal campaign funds.

          Whatever one’s views on guns, or gun control, what Newsom did was sleazy, dishonest, corrupt, and, of course, completely legal. Just another reminder of what I hate about our current political and economic system.

  5. Anonymous

    I am a PG&E employee. I have no love for my company and am making this statement as a personal statement and expressly declaim any official affiliation with PG&E’s official statements. My comments are my own and in no way shall be interpreted as being made with the authorization or consent of the company. I am not acting on behalf of or for the company and my views shall not be construed as expressing any position for the company in any regard whatsoever.

    While I agree with and understand the outrage at the pattern of failures clearly demonstrated over the course of the company’s history, and wish the judgment in the San Bruno case was much more severe, I would simply like to point out that there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions at this stage.

    It will behoove everyone, most of all the victims of these unfortunate fires, to keep speculation to a minimum. It is recognized by every professional fire investigator that one incident vector in a wildfire may be related to energized electrical equipment. There are literally thousands of other possible cause. That weekend there were 16 or 20 fire complexes that included hundreds of individual instances of combustion. It is highly likely some of these were the result of electrical ignition sources.

    That is a very far cry from determining either proximate cause or culpability, so, again, please do not jump on the bandwagon before the facts are in.

    Also, California law has a strict liability doctrine for damage stemming from fires caused by electric equipment and PG&E is looking at potentially significant costs should it be proven at fault (not even at fault, merely if PG&E owned electric equipment was involved in ignition).

    At some point, the glee of attacking an ineptly run company must also address the facts that: a) without electricity, there is no meaningful civilization, b) public demand for electricity carries a set of risk to public and personal safety inherent in electricity, and c) the public demand for cheaper everything, results in cheaper everything. If we as a society want safe electricity, then we have to pay for that. Demands for ever lower rates simply forces the rather incompetent leadership team to do what they learned in B-school, i.e. lower investment because no one in America by god, could possibly fail to meet earnings expectations.

    We cannot have it both ways.

    @Ned – DCPP is being decommissioned, perhaps you should celebrate that. All your points are mooted.

    1. Sluggeaux

      If the “management” class weren’t so focused on their compensation, and the “political” class weren’t so addicted to the graft that flows from it, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. There were many fires, and public discussions like this are necessary to counteract the propaganda coming out of PG&E management.

      I mean, come on. Executives pulling down Six Million Dollars each while laying-off the skilled workers who actually run the system?

      BTW, yesterday we had our first big storm of the year in Santa Cruz — and falling branches knocked-out the power for four hours. In a 5-minute walk from the Town Clock, not out in the country. It had to be reported by phone; the helpful worker said that the “Smart Meter” computers had failed to catch that 58 urban customers were without power.

      First PG&E laid-off all the in-house tree-trimmers. Now the contract parolee crews stopped showing up. Haven’t seen them in 2-3 years. But executive compensation and shareholder dividends keep going up.

      1. Jim H

        Dividend growth? Not so much. It was 0.49/quarter in ’96, then dropped to 0.30. Finally regained the 0.49 mark in Q3 2016 and “jumped” to 0.53 in Q2 of this year.
        Some of the law firms involved seem like ambulance chasers going after the perceived deep pockets. Have heard too many radio ads in the Bay Area from law firms pitching for customers in the last few weeks to think otherwise. They too are profit maximizers looking to line the partners’ coffers. Anonymous employee seems more reasonable, as well pointed out that Diablo Canyon will be shutting down rather than extended. Remember too that the faults on which it sits were not known when it was built. Or perhaps only PG&E knew of them and didn’t tell?

  6. laughtiger

    The problem with the PUC isn’t that they lack aggression, so much as in that they are overly cozy with the companies they are supposed to be regulating. There should be a full investigation of all their backroom relationships, from PG&E to Uber…

  7. steelhead23

    I have had the opportunity to watch electrical grid management in real time. The physics regarding electrical flow through a system of generators, transmission lines, substation nodes, and loads is quite complex. The overarching mandate to the professionals running the system is to keep the juice flowing. If a part of the system goes down, flows increase in other parts of the system. As the load on a given portion of the system increases, the transmission lines heat up and sag. As they sag, more of the field is absorbed by the ground, potentially leading to arcing and fire. While proper maintenance of transmission corridors is important, generally speaking, fire risk would be reduced by increased transmission capacity which is expensive and environmentally destructive. Such expansions tend to face strong public opposition as the costs would be passed on to the consumer and everyone pays for environmental destruction.

    Perhaps there was negligence here, but my experience suggest that even if transmission system arcing caused one or more of the fires, the outcome is not entirely PG&E’s fault.

  8. leapfrog

    This is slightly off-topic, in that I’m wondering if PG&E will be going bankrupt again? I remember PG&E was bankrupt during the Gov. Schwartzenegger administration and there were articles in the papers stating the government of California could decide to take over PG&E and make it a public-owned utility. Yet, this didn’t happen. I wonder about the possibility of that happening again. It would be a win for public if we could own it. But I fear politicians are far too beholden to PG&E to ever allow that scenario. I apologize if this is too off-topic.

    1. JBird

      I apologize if this is too off-topic.

      It’s not really off-topic as our theme is PG&E’s, with the PUC’s assistance, dangerous greed nurtured incompetence.

    2. treevole

      From an article titled State sues PGand E’s parent company:

      “Critics of the bankruptcy filing pointed out that PG&E had transferred more than $4 billion to its unregulated holding company, in the form of dividends and stock purchases, in the previous four years. This included $632 million in the first nine months of 2000, when the utility was bleeding money from power purchases.
      But, until yesterday, no one had found a way to challenge the transfers in court.”

      PGand E very smartly transferred $4billion to their parent company in the years before declaring bankruptcy. PGandE also very smartly also makes campaign donations to virtually every politician in the state of California including congressional representatives and Governor Brown who then do PGand E’s bidding.

      For information about the sordid relationship that the utilities and fossil fuel companies have with the Brown Administration see “Brown’s Dirty Hands.” Link will take you directly to a 38 page.

  9. Enquiring Mind

    Some things never change.

    Arthur Hailey wrote about the California electricity industry in his book , where the main company was Golden State Power & Light, to some, God’s Power & Light. Twas ever thus.

    While working as a utility person in a former life, I saw a combination of duty, cluelessness and arrogance. In that era, there was more public involvement and less of a lobbyist/attorney/executive charade.

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