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PG&E Alleged Culprit in 12 California Wildfires as State Ponders Liability Risks

California lawmakers, utilities and consumer groups are expecting the state legislature to propose ways to lower the risk of wildfires this summer, but it is unclear what direction bills may take, particularly regarding the looming liability of the major private and public sector utilities.

The utilities, already targeted for blame in previous wildfires, are looking for support of future cost recovery, while their critics, including some lawmakers, want protection against consumers being saddled with costs related to the utilities’ mistakes.

Senate Bill (SB) 819, which is pushed by utility critic state Sen. Jerry Hill, would prevent utilities from passing any liability costs to customers if utility negligence is involved. The bill passed the full Senate last month.

An industry source cautioned that it is too early in the process to know what other bills may emerge, and that most of the discussion in the state Capitol is "educational" in nature. De-energizing power systems and utility mitigation plans for wildfire corridors are two issues being talked about.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes the Napa wine country where major fires rampaged last year, has two proposals that have cleared the Senate and moved to the Assembly:

  • SB 901 would require utilities to update wildfire mitigation plans to include policies and procedures for determining if, when and where to temporarily de-energize a power line during harsh weather; and
  • SB 1088 would require the state Office of Emergency Services to raise standards for strengthening infrastructure in conjunction with the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal FIRE).

SB 1088 was developed in response to last October's wildfires, which caused more than $10 billion in damage and killed more than 40 people. Investigators found similar fires elsewhere in the state were caused by fallen or damaged utility power lines.

Last Friday, California officials alleged that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) equipment and operations caused 12 of the 2017 wildfires, and the evidence in eight of the cases was passed on to local county district attorneys. The dozen fires collectively consumed 245,000 acres, killed 44 people, and have resulted in numerous lawsuits against PG&E.

PG&E responded to the final report by the Cal FIRE by reiterating that its fire prevention programs met the state's standards and the unprecedented series of wildfires were the product of climate and other environmental changes.

PG&E said its maintenance programs meet or exceed state standards for power pole integrity management and vegetation management programs. The San Francisco-based combination utility is attributing the extreme wildfire situation last year to a "new normal" that requires a statewide solution with the utility working with state and local stakeholders.

"Extreme weather is increasing the number of large wildfires, and the length of the wildfire season in California," said a PG&E spokesperson.

Cal FIRE said its investigation of the October and December wildfires continues, and it plans to release additional findings as they become available.

State fire investigators have referred allegations against PG&E to district attorneys for the six counties in which the fires occurred. In all of the fires, investigators found the causes were related to power lines falling to the ground or tree limbs falling into the lines.

In December, there were initial reports of possible involvement of Southern California Edison Co. equipment in the start of the Creek fire in Southern California. They were found to be inaccurate as the transmission line equipment in question belongs to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and the city-run utility said that equipment did not spark or go down in the fire.

LADWP has denied that one of its lines went down in the Creek fire area. "Our line was not severed, it relayed due to [excess amounts of] smoke an hour after the Creek fire was first reported to the county fire department, said spokesperson Joe Ramallo. "When our [undamaged] line relayed, we took it out of service and left it off until Dec. 7, when it was returned to normal services."

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