PG&E Sees ‘No Basis’ for Criminal Charge for Dixie Fire
(Bloomberg) -- PG&E Corp. Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe sees “no basis for criminal charges” related to the Dixie Fire, a Northern California blaze that spread into five counties and has become the second-largest in state history.
“Anyone can file criminal charges,” Poppe said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s sort of the easiest thing someone can do, is file criminal charges. That doesn’t mean there is a basis for criminal charges.”
Five California counties disclosed a joint investigation in September to determine PG&E’s possible criminal liability for sparking the Dixie Fire, which began in July and has consumed more than 960,000 acres (390,000 hectares). The company remains on criminal probation tied to a deadly natural-gas explosion in 2010, and last month was charged with 31 criminal counts including involuntary manslaughter for a separate blaze in 2020 in Shasta County that killed four people. The utility also is fighting charges over a 2019 fire in Sonoma County.
Poppe, who took the helm at PG&E in January, has vowed to improve wildfire-prevention work and streamline operations. Still, the company continues to come under scrutiny for its role in starting big wildfires, and its equipment is suspected of sparking the Dixie Fire.
A PG&E worker discovered the start of the blaze while taking several hours to investigate a power outage in the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento. The worker discovered a fire at the base of a tree that had fallen into an electrical line.
Poppe said that the state has granted the utility a safety certificate for its wildfire mitigation plan and therefore it’s deemed a prudent operator.
“I have a hard time understanding how a prudent operator can also be a criminal. I definitely know my co-workers are not,” Poppe said during an interview at PG&E’s wildfire-risk command center in San Ramon, California.
Shortly after the start of the Dixie Fire, PG&E increased the sensitivity of its fault-detecting devices in high fire-risk areas so that power would be cut faster in the event of an outage, Poppe said.
“After the Dixie, we recognized a new hazard, that otherwise healthy-looking trees on a still day are falling over and making contact with our lines,” Poppe said. The drought has left more dry fuels primed to burn, requiring the utility to take the extra steps to prevent its lines from causing a spark, she said.
The change has resulted in an 85% reduction in ignition rates in certain high fire-threat areas compared with the average ignition rate from 2015 to 2020, PG&E said. The policy has resulted in an increase in the frequency of power outages for customers, although the utility is working to reduce the impacts.
“For the first time ever, we have confidence in our ignition reduction,” Poppe said.
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