As distraught residents and business owners slowly make their way back into northern California burn zones, most are finding bad news. Images from the fires that thus far have claimed at least 23 lives and 3,500 buildings are beginning to surface and the devastation appears complete.
With over 20,000 evacuated on extremely short notice, mysteries surrounding the source(s) of the fires abound. Fires of this sort don’t typically sneak up on people nor do seven of them erupt in different places basically simultaneously. The burning is usually seen and known and residents have time to prepare for evacuation well in advance should the winds change, literally. But thousands of people have reported that they had zero notice. They went to bed, woke up and their street was on fire. They bolted out the door and escaped with their lives. How can that happen?
Sources today are pointing a finger at Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Fox affiliate in San Francisco, KTVU, and other local media are reporting today on a string of dispatch calls regarding downed power lines in the midst of high winds that preceded the fires which could possibly provide the responsible cause/effect relationship:
“Firefighters in Napa and Sonoma Counties called in more than a dozen reports of downed power lines, live wires, and blown transformers in just the first three hours after devastating wildfires erupted in the North Bay, according to dispatch audio reviewed by 2 Investigates.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. responded to questions about its power system in a statement Wednesday, saying 75 mph winds and dry vegetation contributed to some trees and debris “impacting” electric lines. The cause of the fires, which had claimed nearly two dozen lives as of Wednesday night, is still under investigation.
According to dispatch audio between fire crews in the first few hours of the firefight, multiple spot fires erupted near the sites of down power lines and fallen trees.
In one exchange between firefighters in Napa County, crews on the ground called in downed wires and a blown transformer near Linda Vista and Lone Oaks Avenue around 9:15 p.m. Sunday. And about 15 minutes later, crews can be heard reporting a fire in the same area. It’s unclear whether that particular fire was quickly knocked down or possibly grew into a larger blaze.
In the hours and days following the outbreak of the firestorm, 2 Investigates’ cameras captured images of downed power lines, exploded transformers, and burned power polls in multiple locations in Napa and Sonoma counties. On Monday, a police officer warned pedestrians to clear out of a street in Santa Rosa where live wires were laying on the ground near a shopping center off Cleveland Ave.
As 2 Investigates crews drove through burned neighborhoods in Napa and Sonoma counties, they counted several downed power polls, wires hanging dangerously low, and PG&E crews working on tangled or toppled lines in multiple areas.
PG&E is required by law to keep vegetation more than 10 feet away from its power polls and towers, and to remove flammable debris from around the surrounding ground.”
While it’s too early to reach concrete conclusions, that doesn’t sound good. If PG&E were found to be responsible for the blazes it wouldn’t be the first time the company’s negligence was cited for loss of life. In 2014 the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) levied $1.4 billion in penalties against PG&E for “thousands of violations leading up to a September 9, 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif.that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.”
Thousands of violations? Like all power companies PG&E has bevvy of safety requirements like updating equipment, maintaining vegetation growth distances from power lines, regular inspection schedules, etc. Yet as the 2014 CPUC report exposed the company has a reputation for doing a poor job of staying on top of things. For its part PG&E has released the following statement:
PG&E’s Full Statement:
PG&E maintains an unwavering focus on delivering safe and reliable electric and gas service to the customers and communities that we serve. The historic wind event that swept across PG&E’s service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases. These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay. In some cases we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure. Where those have occurred, we have reported them to our state utility regulator and CalFire. Our thoughts are with all those individuals who were impacted by these devastating wildfires. We want our customers, families and friends to know that we will stand beside them and work together throughout this restoration process.
If ensuing investigations end up pinning responsibility on PG&E there’s no telling what the ramifications may be. Given the loss of life and property there are sure to be law suits possibly even class-action(s). Should a jury find in favor of the plaintiffs in any such action the financial repercussions to PG&E could be devastating. Can a state allow its own power-supply company to go bankrupt? All these questions loom heavy on the horizon.
[NOTE: This article was written by Derrick Wilburn, Founder and Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives, and a speaker, author, columnist and analyst for multiple print and broadcast media outlets. Follow him on Facebook and at RMBlackConservatives.com.]