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Federal judge orders PG&E to answer for deadly Camp Fire

Utility company must “provide an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire,” says judge

Paradise, California Continues Recovery Efforts From The Devastating Camp Fire
PG&E crews repair power lines in Paradise, near the site of the Camp Fire.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A federal judge issued an order Tuesday demanding that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) account for whether or not its equipment and/or policies might have contributed to the Camp Fire in Butte County, California’s most destructive and deadly wildfire.

The missive from Federal District Court Judge William Alsup (published here by the San Francisco Chronicle) orders the utility company to “provide an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County.”

Alsup also wants an assessment of what “federal, state, or local crimes might be implicated were any wildfire started by reckless operation or abandonment of PG&E power lines” or “inaccurate, slow, or failed reporting of information about any wildfire.”

Alsup oversees PG&E’s criminal probation related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight.

In 2016, a jury found PG&E guilty of safety violations contributing to that disaster. Part of the company’s sentence includes “five years of probation under the watch of a court-appointed monitor,” according to KQED.

Now Alsup wants the monitor to take PG&E to task for its potential liability in the Camp Fire, which killed at least 88 people in Butte County and destroyed nearly 14,000 residences.

Paradise, California Continues Recovery Efforts From The Devastating Camp Fire Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PG&E considered suspending power service to areas in Butte County the very day the Camp Fire started, specifically because of fire dangers. However, in a public statement issued that same day, PG&E concluded that that “weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure.”

For the record, the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, and circumstantial evidence about potential PG&E contributions to the conflagration are not necessarily incriminating.

They are, however, enough to apparently warrant scrutiny on the grounds of the utility’s ongoing probation.

In response to the order, PG&E spokesperson Jennifer Robison told Curbed SF, “We are aware of the court’s notice and are currently reviewing,” adding that the company is “[continuing] to focus on assessing infrastructure” in fire-affected areas.

On Tuesday, PG&E submitted a report to the California Public Utilities Commission claiming that weather and fire hazards on November 8 were not bad enough to warrant turning off power service:

PG&E is working and learning to reflect this new normal in how it adapts, proactively manages risks, plans and invests, and operates to make its systems more resilient. [...]

By a round 13:00 on Thursday, November 8, winds were decreasing, and conditions were no longer forecast to approach PSPS [Public Safety Power Shutoff] criteria.

Based on the forecasted information, PG&E no longer anticipated a possible need to de-energize. PG&E immediately informed all stakeholders of the change in conditions and that no lines would be proactively de-energized.

According to Cal Fire, the Camp Fire started around 6:30 a.m. on November 8, well before the reported 1 p.m. decision time.