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State Investigation: Lax PG&E Maintenance Behind Behind Deadly Camp Fire

A view of power lines during a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) public safety power shutoff on November 20, 2019 in Santa Rosa, California.
A view of power lines during a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) public safety power shutoff on November 20, 2019 in Santa Rosa, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A state investigation found that PG&E failed to adequately maintain and inspect transmission lines, according to the Wall Street Journal.

 The report by the California Public Utilities Commission found that PG&E failed to follow not only state maintenance and inspection guidelines, but it’s own. The incident tower on the Caribou-Palermo line that sparked the 153,000 acre Camp Fire had not received a climbing inspection in more than two decades. Had it been thus inspected, a worn out c-hook support system could have been repaired and potentially prevented the fire. Tower #27/222 was not the only place where such a faulty connection was discovered though, the CPUC report found. The Caribou-Palermo line had been slated for upgrades for federal compliance, but never followed through. It remains unclear whether a judge will find the utility in violation of the federal probation it was placed under after a 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno.

PG&E declined our request to be interviewed but provided the following statement:

“PG&E accepts SED’s conclusion that PG&E electrical transmission lines near Pulga were a cause of the Camp Fire, reaffirming CAL FIRE’s earlier determination. Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses is heartbreaking. The tragedy in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018, will never be forgotten. We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy, and we apologize to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire. PG&E’s most important responsibility must always be public and employee safety, and we remain focused on helping affected communities recover and rebuild, resolving wildfire victims’ claims fairly and expeditiously, and further reducing wildfire risks.

As part of our enhanced wildfire safety efforts, we conducted accelerated safety inspections of electric infrastructure in areas of higher wildfire risk. We implemented these inspections following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires as additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire risks and keeping our customers and communities safe, given the growing wildfire threat across the state. These enhanced inspections are one part of our Community Wildfire Safety Program and are in addition to our routine inspections and maintenance programs. 

We have inspected almost 730,000 transmission, distribution and substation structures and over 25 million electrical components in those areas. We climbed them, we used drones and we performed 18 months of inspections in only 4 months. Throughout the inspection process, we have addressed and repaired conditions that pose an immediate safety risk, while completing other high-priority repairs on an accelerated basis. Repairs for other conditions will be completed as part of our routine work execution plan.”


Katherine Blunt, Reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering utilities and renewable energy; she tweets @KatherineBlunt

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and senior research scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University; he tweets @MichaelWWara

Loretta Lynch, former president of the California Public Utilities Commission and Board Member with the Protect Our Communities Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization for clean energy in San Diego County, Imperial County, and Northern Baja California