PG&E says its equipment started a fire that merged with a larger wildfire

SAN FRANCISCO – Pacific Gas & Electric has said its equipment may have been involved in starting a small wildfire that merged with a massive blaze now threatening homes in the mountains of northern California, a revelation that is arrived Tuesday as the nation’s largest utility informed state regulators of plans to use intentional blackouts to try to prevent further fires.

The US Forest Service was examining a tree found on PG&E power lines where the Fly Fire began on July 22, according to the utility’s report to the California Public Utilities Commission. The smaller fire then joined the much larger Dixie Fire, which PG&E said could also have started when a tree fell on one of its power lines. It is burning near the town of Paradise, which was largely destroyed in a 2018 wildfire that became the country’s deadliest in a century and was blamed on PG&E equipment.

Regulators and officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the governor’s office of emergency services said on Tuesday that the San Francisco-based utility had improved its handling of power outages since October 2019 , when it was widely criticized for botching several intentional blackouts, including one that left nearly 2 million people in northern California without power for days.

But the commission’s chairperson, Marybel Batjer, stressed on Tuesday that cutting the power must be a last resort. If and when the utility calls for an outage, she said, company officials need to make sure it’s short and customers are prepared to resist it.

“This is only the minimum of what needs to be done,” she said.

The discussion comes as California is mired in a devastating wildfire season exacerbated by a historic drought plaguing the western United States, climate change making the region hotter and drier and the flames larger. and more destructive. Much of northern California is expected to experience dangerous forest fire conditions later this week – low humidity, strong winds and high temperatures – that could trigger what is called a “power outage for the city”. public security “.

PG&E PCG officials,
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San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison testified about improvements in weather forecasts that they believe should make outages more targeted in terms of size and duration, as well as their plans to better communicate with customers and local authorities. .

“We are leveraging the best available science and we will bring in the best minds, the best analysis, to be able to help us give us the right predictive capacity and capability,” said Sumeet Singh, senior vice president and head of PG&E . risk manager.

Will Abrams, victim of a 2017 forest fire in Santa Rosa caused by PG&E equipment that was repeatedly forced to evacuate, asked commissioners to remember the survivors.

“We are currently in a very difficult situation, with each fire really preventing us from rebuilding our homes and our lives,” he said.

PG&E equipment has been accused of starting some of the state’s deadliest forest fires in recent years, most notably in 2017 and 2018, when a series of fires burned down more than 28,000 buildings and killed more than 100 persons. It emerged from bankruptcy last year after wildfires ignited by its long-neglected power grid prompted it to declare financial insolvency.

The Dixie Fire, California’s largest blaze, covered nearly 400 square miles of mountains where 67 homes and other buildings were destroyed. New evacuation orders were issued as strong winds fanned the flames. The fire was brought under control at 35%.

It was burning northeast of the town of Paradise, where survivors of a 2018 fire started by PG&E equipment and killed 85 people looked on suspiciously. The company pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter in 84 of the deaths.

Last month, PG&E announced plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in an attempt to prevent its power grid from starting wildfires. On Tuesday, officials said teams were reinforcing poles and lines, installing sectional devices to limit the number of affected customers and providing portable batteries to eligible households.

The utility would be “tenacious in our efforts to stop the ignitions of our equipment,” PG&E Corp. CEO Patti Poppe said in a statement on Monday. She is the company’s fifth executive in less than three years.

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Lois Mendez

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