As the Dixie Fire grows into the largest blaze in the country and leaves another mountain community burned to the ground, PG&E’s admission that its equipment may have been involved brings new scrutiny to the troubled utility that serves Northern California.
Two separate reports filed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. state that its equipment may have sparked both the Dixie Fire and a smaller blaze, the Fly Fire, that later merged with it. Both are inconclusive and no official cause has been determined.
The questions around Dixie’s origin are only the latest in a string of disasters that left the utility in bankruptcy and led to its criminal prosecution.
PG&E equipment was determined to be at fault for starting the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed most of the Butte County community of Paradise and killed 85 people.
And earlier this year, Shasta and Tehama counties agreed to a $12 million settlement with PG&E to recover costs associated with last year’s deadly Zogg Fire. In March, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection blamed PG&E equipment for causing the fire.
The two “Electric Incident Reports” on the Dixie and Fly fires were filed with the California Public Utilities Commission within about two weeks of each other.
PG&E stated in the first report, filed July 18, that on the morning of July 13, the day the Dixie Fire started, PG&E’s outage system showed that Cresta Dam in the Feather River Canyon had lost power.
A PG&E employee from a distance observed what he thought was a blown fuse, but due to the “challenging terrain and road work” he was not able to get to the power pole until the afternoon, about nine hours after the outage system reported the loss of power, the report said.
When he got to the power pole, the PG&E employee saw that two of three fuses had been blown and there appeared to be a “healthy green tree” leaning on a conductor and a fire burning on the ground near the base of the tree, the report said.
The report goes on to say Cal Fire air tankers began dropping retardant and water on the fire about 50 minutes after the PG&E employee arrived on the scene and reported the fire.
PG&E officials said Cal Fire investigators collected portions of the power line and the tree and that the utility’s management was “cooperating with Cal Fire’s investigation.”
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Then in a second report filed Aug. 2 with state regulators, PG&E officials said on the afternoon of July 22 wildfire cameras showed smoke in the direction of Butterfly Valley Twain Road and Highway 70 in Plumas County, where the Fly Fire started. The Fly would merge with the Dixie Fire on the night of July 24-25.
PG&E records showed that a distribution line serving the area “reported alarms and other activity” between 4:50 p.m. and 6:10 p.m., “when that portion of the line was deenergized,” the report said.
On Aug. 2, PG&E crews helped U.S. Forest Service officials with the removal and examination of a tree that was resting on the PG&E power line, the report said.
“The data currently available to PG&E do not establish the cause of the Fly Fire. This information is preliminary,” the utility said.
Responding to an email from the Record Searchlight, PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno sent a link to a news release that mentioned the Fly Fire incident report. There was no news release for the Dixie Fire report. Moreno also sent a link to another news release that features a news conference that mentions PG&E’s initiative to underground its power lines. He had no further comment.
PG&E in late July announced a plan to bury some 10,000 miles of its power lines underground in an effort to prevent future wildfires. The multi-billion-dollar project would be the largest of its kind in U.S. history.
State Sen. Brian Dahle, whose district includes the Dixie Fire area, said he wants to know if PG&E did the work to make sure its lines were safe in the areas in question.
“They did say they knew they had contact with their lines and they reported that,” Dahle said. “So I want to go back and see, did you do everything you were supposed to do to minimize the risk.”
At this time, Dahle wants to keep people in the area safe and help those who’ve been displaced by the fire.
“My heart just breaks for what has happened in my district,” he said.
The Dixie Fire, the largest U.S. wildfire so far this year, had burned more than 430,000 acres as of Friday morning and was 35% contained. The 3-week-old blaze had destroyed more than 130 buildings, many of them homes in the town of Greenville, which was decimated Wednesday night as the fire raged through the historic Gold Rush community.
The Shasta County District Attorney’s Office last month announced it had determined criminal charges are warranted against PG&E in connection with the 2020 Zogg Fire.
The Zogg Fire started in Igo on Sept. 27, 2020, and killed four people. Officials said 204 buildings were destroyed and another 27 were damaged in the 56,338-acre fire.
David Benda covers business, development and anything else that comes up for the USA TODAY Network in Redding. He also writes the weekly “Buzz on the Street” column. He’s part of a team of dedicated reporters that investigate wrongdoing, cover breaking news and tell other stories about your community. Reach him on Twitter @DavidBenda_RS or by phone at 1-530-225-8219. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today.