Camp Fire Victim: PG&E Told Her it Needed to Fix Sparking Transmission Line Day Before Deadly Blaze

The California Public Utilities Commission launched investigations Monday into California’s two largest utility companies after both PG&E and Southern California Edison Company reported that their electrical infrastructure suffered malfunctions near ground zero of two deadly blazes raging across the north and south of the state.

by Matthias Gafni, East Bay Times / November 13, 2018

(TNS) -  The day before firefighter radio transmissions revealed a malfunctioning PG&E power line may have triggered the state’s most destructive wildfire, a business owner in this tiny town near the Camp Fire’s origin said she received an email from the utility alerting her that workers had to fix a sparking problem on a nearby power line.

In the email received Wednesday, the company said they’d be coming out to work on one of their nearby towers that “were having problems with sparks,” said Betsy Ann Cowley, owner of Pulga, a former abandoned railroad town turned retreat popular with techies.

“This needs to become a class action lawsuit,” the former Oakland resident said.

Just what might have caused the sparking is unclear, but the radio transmissions reviewed by Bay Area News Group and an alert sent to state regulators indicate a transmission line created a hazard about 15 minutes before the blaze was first reported. Firefighters found downed power lines and a fast-moving fire beneath the high-tension wires when they arrived at the fire’s origin about a mile northeast of Pulga, by the dam.

A PG&E spokesman said he was looking into Cowley’s claims.
  
The California Public Utilities Commission launched investigations Monday into California’s two largest utility companies after both PG&E and Southern California Edison Company reported that their electrical infrastructure suffered malfunctions near ground zero of two deadly blazes raging across the north and south of the state.

The probes will “assess the compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations in fire impacted areas,” CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said Monday. “The CPUC staff investigations may include an inspection of the fire sites once Cal Fire allows access, as well as maintenance of facilities, vegetation management, and emergency preparedness and response.”

Both utility companies have reiterated that no cause of either fire has been determined.

PG&E already faces billions in potential liability because of the role of its power equipment in other destructive wildfires, including those last year in the Wine Country. The utility could face substantial liability from the Camp Fire if its equipment is deemed to be at fault, but its financial risk has been diminished by a controversial law passed earlier this year that allows the utility to pass the costs of fire damage onto ratepayers under some circumstances.

On Friday, PG&E disclosed in a filing to the CPUC that it had detected an outage on a transmission line in Butte County, occurring about 15 minutes before the Camp Fire was first reported and in the same location Cal Fire pinpointed as the origin. The utility said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on that same transmission line a mile northeast of the town of Pulga “in the area of the Camp Fire.”

That is the approximate location of Poe Dam where initial radio transmissions of the fire — which has killed at least 42 people and destroyed more than 7,000 structures — indicate that a damaged transmission line was found by firefighters who discovered the initial fire beneath the high-tension wires. About 48 hours before the fire started, the utility had been warning multiple counties, including Butte, that it would possibly shut down power Thursday morning due to dangerous fire weather conditions. But, in the end, PG&E kept the power on.

The Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Friday that his office has been in discussions with Cal Fire to preserve the fire scene and any potential evidence for a possible criminal investigation.

On Monday, guards blocked access to the road beyond Cowley’s property, preventing anyone from continuing the final 3/4-mile to the transformer tower.

“I’ve continuously tried to get in touch with them but nobody is in charge and they suck at communication,” she said of PG&E workers who handle nearby transmission lines. The lines, she said, have been ignored for years, except for herds of goats on the slope chewing away vegetation under the lines.

Radio transmissions from the first firefighters on the scene said it was managed vegetation area that was on fire initially, but high winds blew the flames to nearby brush and timber.

Michael Flautt, who often testifies as an electrical accident expert in court, said he would look at whether an equipment problem led to the malfunction in the 115 kV Caribou-Palermo transmission line.

“They should check if the equipment at the original source was not set up properly for a short or a ground fault,” Flautt said, stressing that he had not viewed the equipment and was offering his expert opinion. “You’d rather have the equipment trip, rather than catch fire.”

While metallic transmission towers are sturdier, they conduct electricity unlike wooden poles, which often carry the smaller, lower voltage in residential lines.

In March, PG&E said that during high winds it would periodically disable automated devices that can allow electrical power to continue flowing despite minor disruptions on the transmission or residential power lines. Other utilities shut down that equipment during high winds because if wires come down, they continue sending currents and could ignite vegetation on the ground.

In response to a question about whether those automated devices, called reclosers, were disabled in the area of the transmission line malfunction, PG&E issued the following statement:

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve,” said spokesman Paul Doherty. “The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined. Right now, our entire company is focused on supporting first responders and assisting our customers and communities impacted by the Camp Fire.”

A crew from Capstone Fire Management was on the dam inspecting the area Monday. The San Diego-based private firefighting company was hired by PG&E to buttress its fire prevention operations, including engine crews and personnel to staff operations centers.

Cowley said she had just returned Monday from her first vacation in four years since buying the place to find her home destroyed. Many of the other structures on the property, including the historic school house with a mural of a scarlet king snake, survived.

On Thursday, SoCal Edison issued an alert to the CPUC that a substation circuit near the origin of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California “relayed,” or sensed a disturbance on the circuit, just two minutes before Cal Fire said that devastating fire began.

“Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m.,” the company reported. “Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m.”

SoCal Edison said personnel had not been able to access the area to investigate further and stressed there had been no determination of cause.

A Cal Fire official said it would be reviewing “electrical equipment” as part of its probe into the Camp Fire.

PG&E stockholders have engaged in a massive sell-off since Friday. Trading in the utility was briefly halted Monday after shares dropped more than 37 percent, before settling at a 17 percent loss on the day. The plummeting shares marked the steepest losses since the power crisis more than a decade ago.

In Paradise, evacuees were upset with the utility.

“Seems like the responsibility is pointing toward them,” said Travis Crockett, who lost his home on Winding Way in Paradise. “Even on our street, there’s a bunch of power lines going through trees.”

Staff writers Karl Mondon and David DeBolt, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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©2018 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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