How utility may be responsible in California wildfires

A closer look at the utility company serving Northern California and California Wine Country shows the dangers that may have played a role in setting the Northern California wildfires in motion

Northern California wildfires

Who’s to blame for October’s deadly Northern California wildfires?

Officials are still investigating whether the fires stemmed from possible arson. Other possible explanations include several electrical causes for the Northern California wildfires, including an exploding transformer and a downed power line under Pacific Gas & Electric’s system. Answers are still forthcoming, but with PG&E’s infrastructure, and its possible role in the deadly blaze, the Northern California utility is now coming under close scrutiny for many of the foreseeable reasons that I write about so often in this electrocution lawyer blog.

How Pacific Gas & Electric may be responsible for Northern California Fires

The Sacramento Bee reported that several 911 callers in Sonoma County claimed to have seen downed PG&E transformers and power lines “sparking and arcing” in the early hours of the fires.

The San Jose Mercury News said that within the first 90 minutes of the fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, firefighters got reports of at least 10 blown transformers or downed power lines at the same time they were called out to battle 19 structure and vegetation fires.

Plus, PG&E admitted, in its report for the 2015 Western Protective Relay Conference, that hardware failures, such as splices and connectors, are responsible for 25% of its annual downed wire problems. In addition, according to the Mercury News:

“PG&E has acknowledged that some of its lines and poles went down that first night of the fires, citing drought-ravaged trees and what it insisted was a ‘historic wind event.’ But this news organization found that the winds when the fires were first reported were roughly half the speed that power poles and lines are required by law to withstand.”

I’ve been an electrocution lawyer for 35 years, and downed power lines have been the cause of many of the lawsuits I’ve brought for people who have been tragically injured and killed. These downed power line lawsuits usually originate from dangerously aged infrastructure.

So how could have PG&E made its infrastructure stronger?

And how could that have prevented or offset the Northern California wildfires — which caused 42 deaths, destroyed nearly 8,000 buildings and burnt more than 210,000 acres — from happening?

Compliance with a safety initiative — not stalling it

In 2007, wind-toppled electrical lines ignited catastrophic fires in the San Diego area. In the wake of that, state officials began working on tightening regulations for utilities and coming up with maps where utility power lines present the highest risk for wildfires.

We’re 10 years past that. Since then, the state Public Utilities Commission, which initiated the process, hasn’t finished either of its fire safety initiatives. The utilities, including PG&E, maintained their opposition to the plan; a PG&E statement in July states that parts of the initiative would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

Administrative law judges assigned to oversee the project granted delays. The most recent delay was Oct. 6, 2017 — two days before the Northern California wildfires.

If during those 10 years, PG&E and the other utilities had not stalled the initiative’s efforts, actual progress could have been made. In addition, had the safety initiatives been enacted, PG&E could have been required to follow more stringent vegetation clearing requirements, tree trimming and inspection guidelines.

Proper inspection and maintenance

That brings me to the next point: keeping power equipment working as it should, by way of inspection and maintenance. But as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“California regulators auditing Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s work in the field cited the company for late repairs and maintenance jobs far more frequently than any other electric utility in the state, according to documents made public in the wake of this month’s deadly Wine Country fires. … No other California utility, or utility division, was found to have more than 1,000 late corrective actions in audits the commission performed from 2013 through this year.”

Further under California’s liability laws, PG&E could be found responsible for failing to complete necessary maintenance — including trimming trees growing near its power lines to at least 4 feet of clearance and placing lines far enough apart that the lines cannot touch.

Better detection of downed power lines

We have the technology to make downed power lines detectable. Power company engineers are able to build “distribution intelligence” systems — ground fault detection systems that have intelligent sensors, processors and communication devices working together.

Stronger, more current hardware to stop fires caused by aged infrastructure

As mentioned before, PG&E has admitted its hardware has resulted in 25% of its annual wire down problems, while 58% of its equipment failures are from overhead conductors.

Shouldn’t that hardware be updated, then?

Splices, connectors, clamps and fittings, which are used for overhead transmission and distribution conductors, age and degrade over time. Weakened, they increase the risk of failing and causing overhead powerlines to fall.

If PG&E had used something like ClampStar, which corrects and reinforces those damaged splices and connectors, its utility poles and power lines may have had the integrity to prevent downed wires.

These Northern California wildfires have become part of the largest and worst in the state’s history. Regardless of its origin and cause, PG&E and other utility companies should pay close attention to the investigation’s findings.

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