Paradise resident Noah Fisher sifts through ruins of his home after the Camp Fire swept through his neighborhood on Nov. 8, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who has repeatedly excoriated PG&E for not doing enough to prevent wildfires, struck a concerned but conciliatory note Tuesday in passing sentence against the utility for a recent violation of its criminal probation.
"I want to help PG&E get to where we all need to be," Alsup said as he ordered the company's board of directors to visit Paradise and San Bruno, two communities devastated by disasters touched off by the company's equipment.
Pacific Gas and Electric in Court
PG&E's new CEO, Bill Johnson, said after attending the hearing he thought the sentence was "wise." The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group, expressed disappointment that Alsup didn't impose a more stringent sentence.
The judge said he expects the board to visit Paradise by mid-July to talk to victims of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.
PG&E has acknowledged that investigators are likely to find its equipment -- specifically, a transmission line northeast of Paradise that arced at about the same time and place as the fire started last Nov. 8 -- ignited the catastrophe.
Alsup said he wants board members to see "the whole scene in person ... looking at it firsthand. Not on TV, not on video, but being up there in person."
He also suggested he may join the Paradise tour, saying "maybe we'll all take a bus ride in July."
The judge also directed the board to create a new committee to monitor the utility's compliance with the terms of its probation and with the provisions of a state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan.
Alsup is overseeing the terms of the company's supervision for a 2016 criminal conviction arising from the September 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster. Eight people died and dozens of homes were destroyed when a shoddily constructed and poorly maintained natural gas pipeline blew up in the Peninsula suburb.
Alsup ruled in January the company had violated its probation in the pipeline case by failing to adequately notify the court it was under criminal investigation for starting a 150-acre fire in Butte County in 2017.
In reviewing PG&E's involvement in starting some of the fires that have swept Northern California in 2017 and 2018, Alsup earlier this year contemplated forcing the company to undertake a vast expansion of its safety and maintenance programs.
He later decided to a somewhat less stringent set of conditions, holding the company strictly accountable for obeying state laws regulating clearance between trees and power lines and telling the company it must adhere to maintenance and safety goals outlined in a 2019 wildfire safety plan required by state law.
PG&E chief Johnson said after the hearing that as a lawyer, he "spent many years in federal court, but I've never stood in that spot before as the person receiving the sentence."
He said the sentence reflected "a pretty good job by the judge."
"He said to go see these people you've affected, go talk to them, go feel their pain and their issues," Johnson said.
Johnson said he plans to visit Paradise this week and that at some point he will also tour North Bay areas burned in the October 2017 fire siege -- several of which investigators say PG&E equipment started.
The CEO said he wants to gain a greater understanding of what happened in the Camp Fire and how it affected Butte County residents.
"The only way to know something is to go see it," Johnson said said. "But I also want to see the people there and talk to people who have been affected. ... I empathize greatly with this tragedy."
Mindy Spatt, communications director for The Utility Reform Network, said she and her group had hoped to see Alsup place PG&E in receivership in the wake of the fires and its probation violation. That would have put an outside authority in charge of the utility.
"We just don't think we can trust PG&E, and we don't think the judge can trust PG&E, either," Spatt said. She said TURN had also wanted the judge to consider prohibiting the company from lobbying the state Legislature while it remains on probation.
Spatt also said that a more effective sentence for the utility's board of directors would be to require members to live in Paradise.
"It's hard to imagine that looking at the devastation wrought by a fire is going to have a huge impact," she said. "Maybe the board of directors could trade homes with the fire victims."
Alsup closed with a reminder of what may lie ahead for the state as it heads into the hot, dry months of summer and fall.
"I just want to end by saying how serious this problem is," the judge said. "We are right on the cusp of the next fire season, and I will lose sleep over it — over did I do enough to help PG&E stop these fires."
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