PG&E Under Investigation in Connection With Deadly Shasta County Wildfire

A view of the Zogg Fire along a ridgeline in the Shasta County community Ono on September 27, 2020.  (Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images)

PG&E disclosed Friday that Cal Fire is investigating whether the company’s equipment was involved in starting a Northern California wildfire that killed four people late last month.

The news comes just three months after the state's largest utility emerged from federal bankruptcy protection — a legal refuge it sought because it faced an estimated $30 billion in liabilities arising from wildfires sparked by its equipment. Those fires killed more than 100 people — including 85 in and around the Butte County town of Paradise — and destroyed more than 15,000 homes.

In reports filed with the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, PG&E said a line in a remote area of Shasta County experienced a series of still-unexplained problems on the afternoon of Sept. 27.

The company said it hasn’t yet determined the nature of the problems, which included alarms from a SmartMeter and other automated equipment and occurred about the same time as the Zogg Fire broke out 10 miles southwest of Redding.

In its submission to the SEC, the utility said that Cal Fire investigators on Friday took possession of PG&E equipment in the area where the fire is believe to have started.

The company said the area, near the intersection of Zogg Mine Road and Jenny Bird Lane where the fire broke out, is served by its 12,000-volt Girvan 1101 distribution circuit. It offered this brief narrative of the sequence of events:

"According to PG&E’s records, on September 27, 2020, a PG&E SmartMeter and a line recloser serving that area reported alarms and other activity between approximately 2:40 p.m. and 3:06 p.m., when the line recloser de-energized that portion of the circuit. The data currently available to PG&E do not establish the causes of the activity on the Girvan 1101 circuit or the locations of these causes.

On October 9, 2020, Cal Fire informed PG&E that they had taken possession of PG&E equipment as part of Cal Fire’s ongoing investigation into the cause of the Zogg Fire and allowed PG&E access to the area. PG&E does not have access to any evidence collected by Cal Fire. Cal Fire has not issued a determination as to cause. PG&E is cooperating with CAL FIRE in its investigation.”

The four people who died in the incident were apparently overtaken by rapidly advancing, wind-driven flames in the first hours of the blaze.

The fire started during a period when PG&E had shut off power to areas in Shasta and 15 other counties considered to be at a high risk of wildfire during a period of gusty winds and very low humidity.

The company reported it had blacked out about 65,000 customers in its service area, including some 2,800 in Shasta County. The shutoffs apparently did not include the circuit now under scrutiny by Cal Fire investigators.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean declined comment.

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The possibility that San Francisco-based PG&E might be responsible for yet another deadly fire triggered a 10% decline in the company's shares in after-hours trading.

Among those who could be directly affected by a prolonged decline in share values are survivors of PG&E-sparked fires in 2017 and 2018. That's because half of a $13.5 billion settlement the company brokered with survivors' attorneys as part of the its bankruptcy exit plan comes in the form of company stock. The stock's price will thus play a part in determining how much compensation wildfire victims will receive for losses suffered in the fires.

PG&E's role in a series of destructive wildfires from 2015 through 2018 — for instance, the failure of a piece of hardware on a transmission tower that sparked the catastrophic Camp Fire that incinerated Paradise — led to major changes in how the state regulates the wildfire safety practices of its major electrical utilities. Legislation passed in 2018 and 2019 has required PG&E and other power providers to develop and act on sweeping wildfire mitigation plans.

In PG&E's case, that's led to an approximately $2 billion program that includes widespread repairs or replacement of substandard power poles, transmission structures, substations and electrical lines. It also includes an effort to find and remove hazardous trees and vegetation from along its more than 100,000 miles of power lines.

But those efforts have come amid continuing criticism, as the company’s past failures keep coming to light.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, overseeing the company’s criminal probation for the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster, has repeatedly blasted the company for failing to meet the letter of state law in its vegetation management practices or to live up to the promises it has made in its state-mandated wildfire safety plan.

Alsup has subjected the company to intense scrutiny since the Camp Fire. Twice over the past two years, he has imposed additional conditions of probation to the company’s sentence.

The judge has repeatedly noted that under the law, companies can’t be sent to prison for criminal offenses. And during a hearing last May on PG&E’s progress toward meeting safety requirements, he declared, "If there ever was a corporation that deserved to go to prison, it is PG&E."