PG&E Says Blackouts Limited Fires Despite One Likely Failure

Utility could be held liable for past wildfires

 

FILE – In this Oct. 31, 2019, file photo, smoke from the Maria Fire billows above Santa Paula, Calif. The nation’s largest utility says its distribution lines have sparked no damaging wildfires since it began repeatedly shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of Northern California customers this fall. But Pacific Gas & Electric is not ruling out that failed transmission equipment may have started a fire north of San Francisco that damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

 

By DON THOMPSON Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The nation’s largest utility said Friday that its distribution lines haven’t sparked any major wildfires since it began shutting off power to Northern California customers during periods of high fire risk.

However, Pacific Gas & Electric is not ruling out the possibility that failed transmission equipment may have started a fire north of San Francisco that damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures.

Authorities have not determined what sparked that blaze last month in Sonoma County, but the utility has said it had a problem at a transmission tower near the site where the fire started. PG&E said in a court filing Friday that it is not aware of similar vulnerable equipment elsewhere.

PG&E has said it shut off power to distribution lines to prevent wildfires, but left electricity flowing through what it believed were less vulnerable transmission lines.

Distribution lines carry power to homes, while transmission lines move it from a power plant.

“In 2019, there have been no fatalities and no structures destroyed in any wildfire that may have been caused by PG&E distribution lines,” the company said.

PG&E has acknowledged its equipment caused a fire last year that killed 85 people and burned nearly 19,000 structures, nearly destroying the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Paradise.

PG&E has said it could potentially be held liable for 21 wildfires in 2017 that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 buildings.

The PG&E statement Friday “sets the bar unbelievably low, if that’s the standard now: ‘We didn’t kill anybody,’” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group.

Most consumers don’t care about the distinction between distribution lines and transmission lines, she said. “Negligence is still negligence.”

The utility has faced scathing criticism for shutting off power to millions of p