State officials question PG&E over wildfires

At the tail end of a deadly, destructive fire season that saw at least one major fire possibly started by power lines, state officials Wednesday grilled utility executives in San Francisco about their efforts to improve fire safety.

State Sen. Jerry Hill called utility officials to testify before the Senate subcommittee on Gas, Electric and Transportation Safety today in part because September’s Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties, which burned more than 70,00 acres, destroyed more than 800 structures and killed two people, may have been started by a PG&E power line that made contact with a tree.

Hill said Wednesday:

“Power equipment causes hundreds of wildfires a year in the state of California. … At these times a spark can grow to a deadly inferno that can destroy tens of thousands of acres of forest.”

Hill said he was concerned by a history of wildfires caused by power lines and electrical equipment, including 2007’s massive Witch Fire in San Diego County, and the 1994 Trauner Fire, in which PG&E was eventually convicted of 739 counts of criminal negligence for its failure to trim trees near power lines.

Hill said;

“I’m trying to figure out how I can trust PG&E again.”

David Shew, staff chief for Cal Fire, said the 2015 fire season, while not the most destructive on record, saw a sharp increase in both the number of wildfires and the number of acres affected.

An extended, record-setting drought and an influx of bark beetles that has killed millions of trees in the state led to severely dry conditions and a fire season that Shew called “unprecedented.” Cal Fire recorded 6,145 fires totaling 307,551 acres between Jan. 1, 2015 and Nov. 14, Shew said.

Those fires included the Valley Fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, which at 76,067 acres, more than 1900 structures destroyed and four deaths is considered the state’s 16th deadliest fire and third most damaging.

Last year, by comparison, saw 4,179 fires in the same period affecting 191,244 acres. The five-year average for the same time period is 4,368 fires and 108,783 acres, according to Cal Fire figures.

Shew said:

“The problem is going to get much worse before it gets much better. … Even with significant rain this year the forests will take several years to recover.”

Increased development and growing populations in wildland areas have also increased the potential for power lines to come into contact with vegetation, fire officials said. PG&E alone has more than 18,000 miles of transmission lines with around 50 million trees nearby.

Pat Hogan, a vice president with PG&E, assured Hill that the company was committed to safety, and testified that after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency next year the company had initiated an increased response plan to reduce the risk of wildfires.

The plan included additional patrols in areas prone to fires, the use of technology to detect dead, diseased and dying trees, a total of $7.5 million in funding to local Fire Safe Councils over the past two years for vegetation clearance efforts, remote cameras in lookout towers and daily aerial patrols to spot fires that might otherwise go unreported.