The Dixie Fire burning in northeastern California has now destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, and raged across more than 500,00 acres, becoming the second largest wildfire in state history. A date for possible full containment remains uncertain.
The massive wildfire is yet another blaze that may have been caused by PG&E equipment, which the utility says is a possibility. The fire has been bellowing across Northern California for more than three weeks after a PG&E worker discovered a small fire at the base of a tree leaning against the utility’s power line. PG&E also said earlier this month that it also might be responsible for the smaller Fly Fire that started July 22 and eventually merged with the Dixie Fire.
While it could take months to determine PG&E’s culpability, if the utility is found at fault, regulators would also need to find that it didn’t follow the state rules or management practices that could have led to the fire.
If PG&E is found to have started the Dixie Fire, the number of burned buildings already is high enough to allow regulators to place the utility into the second level of a six-step enforcement process that could lead to a state takeover for repeated safety violations.
PG&E triggered Step 1 in April when it was found to have failed to prioritize clearing vegetation on its highest-risk power lines in 2020.
Step 2 would be invoked if PG&E’s failure to follow the utility commission’s safety rules that leads to an incident or incidents that destroys 1,000 or more dwellings or commercial structures. The Dixie Fire meets that criteria.
If Step 2 is invoked, PG&E would be required to create a correction plan. And if that fails to stop continued utility-caused destruction, Step 3 calls for appointment of an independent, third-party monitor to oversee PG&E’s safety programs.
After that, subsequent failures would eventually lead to state takeover by a non-profit, public-benefit corporation.
But as the fire season moves into its most critical stage, California needs to start seriously planning for the takeover of the utility, which has already been given several opportunities for reform, but continues to show it can’t meet the safety standards set by the California Public Utilities Commission for PG&E’s emergence from bankruptcy.
A government takeover should not be taken lightly. The state taking control of PG&E, which is one of the largest gas and electric companies in the U.S. with 16 million customers in 48 counties across Northern and Central California, would be unprecedented.
But considering PG&E’s track record, the PUC should have started with Step 3 of the enforcement process – appointing an independent, monitor to oversee PG&E’s safety programs and practices.
Moving toward that action would have been justified, since PG&E is a convicted corporate felon found responsible for the deaths of 111 people and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes over the past decade or so
It faces more criminal charges in Shasta County over the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings near Redding. The Zogg Fire started when a pine tree hit a PG&E power line.
Don’t forget that PG&E admitted in 2019 to a federal judge that it did not meet its wildfire safety plan risk-reduction targets for that year – but had gone ahead seeking approval of $187.8 million in bonuses for 400 senior employees. The request followed the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, which killed 85 people, destroyed 12,637 homes and 4,201 businesses. PG&E later withdrew the bonus after widespread protests.
Government control of the utility would bring its own problems, but PG&E has continued to show it can’t provide gas and electricity safely. As the current fires season moves into even more dangerous territory, and based on the enforcement plan already in place, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators should start the countdown for a takeover.