PG&E in crisis over California wildfires in Wine Country

In 2010 San Bruno, California was rocked by by a pipeline explosion in its Crestmoor residential neighborhood. Miraculously, only eight people were killed in the blast that leveled 35 homes and damaged dozens more. Investigations ultimately concluded that Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the largest energy companies in the US, was responsible for the detonation. In a series of investigations, it was determined that the pipeline in question contained defective welds. Over time, the welds weakened and ultimately led to the explosion. In 2014, PG&E was indicted by federal grand jury for violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968. The San Bruno incident continued to haunt the company as its greatest crisis, until October 8 2017, and the eruption of multiple California wildfires.

Cause of October 2017 California wildfires

Speculation is up in the air as to the cause of the largest California wildfires in state history. For many state residents, the fires seemingly erupted out of nowhere on October 9th, with news coverage suddenly focused on the disaster. But in a report by the Sacramento Bee, emergency dispatch reports cited fallen lines throughout the now stricken region. Another report by The Mercury News directly linked fallen power lines as the cause of the fires. A video on the site contains portions of emergency dispatch recordings, gathered from a 90 minute period in which multiple fire crews were sent to investigate power lines and “exploding transformers.”

As of October 17, multiple fires burning throughout Wine Country had yet to be fully contained. Over 245,000 acres burned, 6700 homes and businesses destroyed, and 41 people are confirmed dead. Recovery crews are following in the wake of the fires, searching for more dead as more than 11,000 firefighters continued to battle the blazes.

PG&E insists that safety is its number one concern. In a statement, a spokesperson acknowledged that equipment failure did occur. In the same statement, it also said that winds on October 8 and 9 “packed hurricane-strength winds”, and it is here where their defense begins to look very suspect.

Fudging figures

High winds have been a factor in all major California wildfires. For the current blazes, they explain the sheer speed that the flames consumed whole neighborhoods. Eye witnesses claim the fires went from being a concern to evacuate from, to leaping from house to house within minutes.

Yet PG&E’s claims of hurricane-force winds exceeding 75 miles per hour are easily challenged. Weather stations recorded winds well below hurricane-strength at the same time the lines were reported down around the starting location of the Tubbs fire, as well as the Atlas fire. While one weather station in Napa-Sonoma did record gusts around 79 mph, it still doesn’t match PG&E’s description: Hurricane-force winds call for speeds for 75 mph or greater, sustained over a minute. Nothing like that was recorded on October 8 or 9.

State law mandates that all power lines must be able to survive 56 mph winds. Even assuming multiple gusts for 79 mph winds, nothing of that extent was widespread enough to explain how so many fires started at once, nor does it explain how so many lines went down all at once.

Some are saying that this represents an ongoing history of PG&E deceiving its customers and regulators on its safety practices.

PG&E on the hot seat once more

Investor concerns have caused the stock price for PG&E to grow highly volatile. When initial reports of PG&E equipment being a probable cause surfaced, the value plummeted. As investigations into the 2017 California wildfires continue, the stock will doubtlessly be in for a bumpy ride.

The 2015 Amador County Butte Fire destroyed 549 homes and killed two people. PG&E would be billed $90 million for firefighting expenses. It would hardly be the first time a power company has been faulted for California wildfires, much less PG&E. Blazes in 2007 were attributed to Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, and there are more throughout the years.

A devastating Sierra fire in 1994 was eventually tied to PG&E by a 1997 Nevada County jury. They cited a “pattern of tree-trimming violations”. The company would be convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence. It was, at the time, the largest criminal conviction against PG&E in California.

In the wake of San Bruno, PG&E was threatened with bankruptcy after dozens of lawsuits were filed. Ultimately, it avoided this, but still paid over $1.6 billion in damages and penalties. If reports of PG&E’s lines being the cause of these recent California wildfires, if negligence is evident in how they were maintained, then the company stands once again on the brink of a massive wave of lawsuits.

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