Investigators probe utility company PG&E’s role in California wildfire

While California is experiencing a record drought, driven in part by climate change, the initial spark for many wildfires often comes from utility equipment and power lines. And fire investigators are now looking into whether the utility company PG&E was behind the nation's largest fire so far this year. KQED's Lily Jamali reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    Southern California's largest utility company, Edison, turned off power today for over 63,000 homes and businesses, as low humidity and high winds increased the risk of starting dangerous wildfires.

    While that state is experiencing a record drought driven in part by climate change, the initial spark for many of these blazes often comes from utility equipment and their power lines.

    Fire investigators are now looking into whether another utility, PG&E, was behind the nation's largest fire so far this year.

    From KQED and the California newsroom, Lily Jamali reports how their findings could have ramifications for the victims of past fires caused by the utility company.

  • Lily Jamali:

    After three months, firefighters in California have contained the Dixie Fire, which, this summer, engulfed almost a million acres, an area bigger than Rhode Island. It's the second largest fire in California history, and has left at least 1,000 people homeless.

    It may have been started by equipment belonging to California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E has been implicated in several devastating fires, including the deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills almost three years ago.

    It was sparked when this hook that kept a power line suspended snapped after a century of use, causing sparks to fly onto dry brush below. The company ultimately pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the residents who died in the Camp Fire.

    Last year, Bill Johnson, PG&E's then-CEO, entered the company's pleas:

  • Bill Johnson, Former PG&E CEO:

    I wish there was some way to take back what happened or to take away the impact, the pain that these people have suffered, but I know that can't be done.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Among the tens of thousands of people who lost homes in that blaze is Teri Lindsay. Since the fire, she and her family have been crammed into one trailer after another.

  • Teri Lindsay, Fire Victim:

    There were five people, four dogs, two guinea pigs, and a cat all living in this mobile home.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Teri escaped with her daughter, Erika (ph), who was just seven when they fled for their lives. Erika still struggles to talk about what happened.

  • Teri Lindsay:

    She was really affected. She sees a campfire, a little campfire in a pit, and she gets scared of the smoke. She hears sirens, she gets worried there's a fire. She is so traumatized by this.

    But she was my helper that day.

  • Lily Jamali:

    This past summer, the Lindsays were on the long list of PG&E fire survivors waiting to get paid from a controversial settlement set up as the company left bankruptcy last year.

    Seventy thousand people who lost homes, businesses, and loved ones in fires caused by the company were promised approximately $13.5 billion, but their settlement has never actually been worth that much. And, today, the vast majority of them have yet to receive a dime.

    PG&E set up a compensation fund for these victims of past fires with $6.75 billion in cash and, in a highly unusual outcome, almost 500 million shares of PG&E itself. That's left PG&E fire survivors collectively holding almost one-quarter of the company's shares through a special trust, whose value fluctuates with the price of PG&E stock.

  • William Abrams, Fire Victim:

    PG&E would not have the incentives

  • Lily Jamali:

    William Abrams was one of several fire survivors who objected to those terms. His family lost their Sonoma County home in 2017. He says the deal has tethered the victims' compensation to PG&E's performance.

  • William Abrams:

    Here's this company that burned down your house, and then they are forcing you to take an investment in their company.

  • Lily Jamali:

    This past spring, more than 100 fire survivors organized a march in the fire-ravaged town of Paradise.

  • Protester:

    Come on through.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Making it known they're unhappy. After more than a year, just 12 percent of even the cash portion of their settlement has made it to them, this as independent administrators have racked up at least $100 million in fees, with no end in sight.

  • Protester:

    It's a trust that's set up for fire victims. Yet, so many months and years down the line, fire victims haven't seen much.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Teri Lindsay told fellow survivors she needs cash in her hands and a roof over her head.

  • Teri Lindsay:

    I'm angry right now. It's because my little girl here, she can't heal until we can go home.

  • Lily Jamali:

    These victims have watched as PG&E comes under scrutiny for more fires and faces charges for more deaths. The company is facing criminal prosecution for a 2019 Wine Country fire, and was charged last month with its second round of manslaughter charges for a 2020 fire in Shasta County.

  • Stephanie Bridgett, Shasta County, California, District Attorney:

    Their failure was reckless, and it was negligent, and it resulted in the deaths of four people.

  • Lily Jamali:

    PG&E acknowledges that fire was caused when a tree fell onto its power lines, but disputes the claim that it's criminally liable. A tree striking its lines also caused the Dixie Fire, this year's largest, which PG&E is being investigated for now.

  • PG&E CEO Patti Poppe:

    Patti Poppe, CEO, Pacific Gas & Electric: That tree that fell on our line is one of eight million trees that are in strike distance to our lines. This is an extraordinary problem.

  • Lily Jamali:

    PG&E declined our request to interview CEO Ms. Poppe for this story.

    But the company sent us a statement, saying that it is hardening its system, piloting new technologies, and taking other aggressive action to increase system safety. The safety plan PG&E has submitted to state regulators lays out just how tall an order that is.

    More than 30,000 miles of PG&E's power lines run through high-threat fire districts, places like this neighborhood in the city of Fremont just outside San Francisco. It's ringed with high-voltage PG&E power lines.

  • Nathaniel Skinner, California Public Utility Commission:

    These houses, just they're right up against the hillside. And so, if there was to be a fire, it's right up against people's homes.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Nathaniel Skinner is a manager at the internal watchdog agency of California's utility regulator. He says PG&E has stepped up work on its system in recent years, but adds, the goalposts are constantly changing, amid relentless change at the top.

  • Nathaniel Skinner:

    So, we have been through a never-ending cycle of CEOs at the company, and yet we still keep seeing the same kinds of problems at the utility, missed inspections, delayed inspections, falsified inspections.

  • Lily Jamali:

    For 2021, of those 30,000 miles of power lines in high-risk zones, just 1, 800 miles are slated for PG&E's stepped-up tree-trimming program, and less than 200 miles are set to undergo major upgrades.

    The company is behind on those goals. But, even at its planned pace, advocates like Skinner say it would take PG&E up to 100 years to address those risks across its system.

  • Teri Lindsay:

    Those are really low. I mean, we can touch them.

  • Lily Jamali:

    Teri Lindsay's temporary home is in the fire zone. She worries about what's ahead. With climate change, these fires aren't going away.

  • Teri Lindsay:

    The winds that come through here, we get some bad winds.

  • Lily Jamali:

    This fall, she learned how much she's owed for her losses, but she will get just 30 percent for now, as PG&E stock flounders.

    And they will never get back all that they lost, including their town.

  • Teri Lindsay:

    We love our town. And to see all this, everything gone, ashes, all that stuff, it's not something I would wish on anybody.

  • Lily Jamali:

    For fire survivors, promises of a safer PG&E have come too little, too late.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lily Jamali in Northern California.

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