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This wildfire season, aging power infrastructure may leave parts of California dark

California wildfires have been brutal recently. The worst in a century was last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and largely destroyed the town of Paradise. State investigators have confirmed a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission line caused the blaze. Amna Nawaz talks to The Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold about how it started and whether PG&E has taken steps to prevent recurrence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wildfires in California have been brutal these past few years.

    This week, state investigators say the Camp wildfire, the deadliest in a century, was caused by equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

    Amna Nawaz has our look into the company's role.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Camp Fire killed 85 people and burned down most of the town of Paradise to the ground, before it was eventually brought under control. Fire investigators say the utility's 100-year-old transmission lines snapped last November and created small fires that spread and turned into the Camp Fire.

    State officials also say PG&E has caused multiple fires in 2017 as well. The company is facing lawsuits, potentially criminal charges, and filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

    Russell Gold is senior energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He's been covering this. He's also the author of a new book on renewables called "Superpower."

    Russell Gold, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    One-hundred-year-old transmission lines, what do we know about how PG&E was run, what they were doing, what they failed to do that led to this devastating fire?

  • Russell Gold:

    Well, what we know is this is a transmission line that was built in 1921.

    And when — before a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, we asked, well, when was the last time it was inspected, when was the last time you were — you had climbed up it, the company was unable to really provide an answer.

    And, basically, this is — this is a company which has had many problems over the years, going back to 2010, with the pipeline explosion — excuse me — explosion in San Bruno, and then continuing forward. It seems like every time they have an issue, they get it taken care of, something else pops up.

    So they're almost playing Whac-A-Mole, trying to keep up with all the different problems that they're having.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, you have seen those problems you just mentioned. State officials saying they were behind multiple other fires as well.

    Is that unusual for a utility like this?

  • Russell Gold:

    There are actually more — considerably more fires started than even other California utilities.

    We looked into that. But one of the biggest problems is that, in the past, you might have a situation where a utility — a line — a tree will hit a line, the line will go down, and it will start a fire.

    But Northern California right now is so dry and has been through so much drought over the last five years that the fires are just devastating. And, really, PG&E is playing catchup. I would venture to say that neither the company nor the regulators really were prepared for the ferocities of the fires that we're seeing right now, and are struggling to try to figure out what to do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So they have a new head, right? Bill Johnson stepped into the role relatively recently, has already testified before lawmakers about this. What is he saying? What is the company response to these findings?

  • Russell Gold:

    Well, so he said PG&E has accepted responsibility. They expected to be found responsible for this Camp Fire.

    What PG&E is doing right now is, they're talking about really a multiyear plan to harden their system, to cut down trees, to try to get this situation under control.

    But, in the meantime, one of the things they're talking about doing, starting this summer, effectively starting now, and certainly in the fall fire season, is they're talking about turning off power to entire cities or half of counties when the conditions are conducive to fires, because they are saying, look, if we cannot guarantee that our equipment is not going to cause a fire, is not going to have a problem and cause a fire, we're just going to turn the equipment off.

    So what we're going to face this fall and what the communities in Northern California are going to face could be two to five days without power.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we mentioned there could be potential criminal charges, right? The district attorney is looking over the report.

    What do we know about accountability for the fires that they have already been linked to?

  • Russell Gold:

    Well, PG&E — well, in California, there is something called inverse condemnation.

    And what that means, very simply, is that it doesn't matter if PG&E was negligent. If their equipment started the fire, they are liable for the damages, and that's property damage. That's lawsuits, death.

    So they are facing billions and billions, $20 billion, $30 billion of damages already. And now, with the Camp Fire, the most deadly of them all, being associated with PG&E, PG&E being blamed for sparking it, just massive liability. That's why they declared bankruptcy earlier this year.

    They're still a profitable company. This is a utility. They can collect rates if you want electricity. But the amount of liabilities they're facing are just so large, they have essentially said, we can't continue going on like this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned some of the steps they are going to be willing to take, some of the things they're already trying to do.

    Preparations are under way, though, for the upcoming fire season across the region. Are people confident that the steps that they're taking now, the things that they're doing, will they be able to safeguard people for this upcoming fire season?

  • Russell Gold:

    No, there's not a lot of confidence right now.

    And you hear that from people that you interview who live in Northern California. You hear it from state regulators. You hear it definitely from state politicians.

    The loss of confidence in PG&E and PG&E's ability to operate safely is really stunning. So, essentially, when you talk to people in places like Napa County, Sonoma County, which went threw deadly wildfires around Santa Rosa in 2017, you say, does it make sense to you to turn off the power on windy days when the conditions are ripe for fires, they basically say, yes, we don't have confidence that PG&E will be able to — that their equipment will not spark more fires, so it makes sense to de-energize those lines, even though it will come as a great inconvenience to the public.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Troubling findings there, something to watch.

    Russell Gold, senior energy reporter at The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

  • Russell Gold:

    Thank you.

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