Federal Judge Presses PG&E Worker on Cause of Dixie Fire

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A silhouette of power lines in the foreground is backlit by a hillside on fire.
Pine trees burn on a hillside at the Dixie Fire, in Twain, California, on July 26, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

A federal judge demanded on Monday that PG&E explain why it didn’t immediately shut off electricity flowing through a power line with blown fuses at the ignition site of the Dixie Fire.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees PG&E's criminal probation for federal pipeline safety violations arising from the 2010 San Bruno disaster, questioned delays in the response of an electrical equipment troubleshooter — called a “troubleman” — that amounted to several hours and may have allowed a tree that had fallen onto a distribution line to ignite on July 13.

The Dixie Fire has grown to become California’s largest single-origin wildfire and has burned more than 960,000 acres, or 1,500 square miles, as of Monday.

“How come it took so long to get somebody there, and once they were there, why wasn’t it the smart thing to do to turn that power off?” Alsup said from the bench after two hours of testimony from the PG&E troubleshooter who responded to a power outage at Cresta Dam near the Butte-Plumas County border. The court has concealed the PG&E worker’s identity to protect his safety.

Alsup said PG&E recognized that the power line was on one of the most dangerous of the utility’s circuits for starting a fire.

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“Why was the power left on in that circuit?” Alsup asked. “That’s the key question that you’ve got to answer.”

During questioning that was at times contentious, the worker recounted the steps he took when he arrived at Cresta Dam. He saw through his binoculars what looked like blown fuses on a power pole that would prove difficult to access. He said he did not see a fallen tree or any evidence of fire, and he decided to drive to the power pole.

“I didn’t see this as a high danger,” he testified. “There hadn't been any wind, it was a calm day, and I didn’t see anything on the line.”

It took him about four hours of driving a one-way rocky road to reach the site, after he was further delayed by construction on a bridge.

It was only when he reached the pole and prepared to examine the blown fuses that he discovered a 40-foot Douglas-fir had fallen onto the line, and below it he saw a fire that he estimated was then between 600 and 800 square feet in size.

He tried to use his radio to call for help, but said he knew the signal in that area was spotty. Then he decided to try to fight the fire.

“I basically slid probably 60 yards down this hill to the location with a 2-and-a-half-gallon fire extinguisher,” he said. “My concern was if I could keep it out of the canopy where the wind could get to it or it could go from tree to tree, that hopefully somebody would see the smoke and be able to help.”

He eventually got in touch with a supervisor on his radio and would meet Cal Fire crews as the blaze grew into the evening to engulf a few acres.

Some of the most dramatic testimony came as Alsup questioned the worker on statements he made over the radio.

“You say there’s a tree on the line that started the fire?” Alsup asked.

“I’m not going to deny that’s what I said,” the worker answered.

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“Do you stand by your statement?” Alsup pressed.

“No, I do not,” the worker said. “All I can say is there was a tee on the line and there was a fire there.”

Alsup asked what changed his mind.

“Just thinking about other possibilities,” the worker said. “Possibly lightning.”

The judge noted that there was clear weather and no evidence of lightning strikes.

“Prior to today, have you given anyone any statement that contradicts your statement to dispatch that, ‘There’s a tree on the line that started the fire?’” Alsup asked.

The worker said he had not.

The judge asked repeatedly why he didn’t think to go to a main-line switch just minutes from Cresta Dam and shut it off.

The troubleshooter said he couldn’t see a tree on the line when he saw the blown fuses through his binoculars.

“I deemed that there was no hazard,” he testified.

“Was this something you could rule out in your own mind: that there was in fact a tree on the line that you couldn’t see, it had not yet ignited,” Alsup asked, “and in the time it took for you to go that long route, the tree exploded into fire? Was that a possible scenario?”

“Yes, that is possible,” the worker testified.

At the end of questioning, the judge thanked the worker for his “single-handed effort to stop that fire, which is now the largest fire in California history.”

Then he turned to a series of orders for PG&E.

He said a declaration filed by a company expert was misleading and appeared to obfuscate that the distribution line in question had been ranked the 11th most dangerous for wildfire risk related to the utility’s equipment.

“Ask yourself, why would somebody want to conceal that fact?” Alsup said. “I want that witness to file a new declaration, and if it’s not satisfactory we’re going to bring him in to explain himself.”

The judge said photographs of the tree showed burns that could indicate a “ground fault,” in which electricity traveled through the tree into the earth, starting a fire near its roots.

“There are plenty of scar marks, burn marks all over that tree from the power that went through it,” Alsup said. “If that happens long enough, it catches the tree on fire.”

“Is that a plausible explanation here of what occurred?” he asked the utility’s attorney. “What evidence do you have that that scenario is wrong?”

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PG&E’s responses are due Friday.