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PG&E, facing losses over Camp Fire, vows to step up wildfire safety

‘Now we have nothing. We’re free,’ says Paradise homeowner

Paradise home owners, renter return to find homes in ashes on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 after Camp Fire destroyed them.
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Paradise home owners, renter return to find homes in ashes on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 after Camp Fire destroyed them.

PG&E, facing an avalanche of lawsuits and increased regulatory scrutiny following the Camp Fire, announced another series of safety measures Monday that it said will reduce wildfire risks.

The embattled utility said it will conduct “detailed safety inspections” of more than 5,500 miles of transmission lines, going beyond its routine maintenance and inspections. “This includes ground and climbing inspections, as well as aerial imagery captured by drones and in some cases helicopter, to further complement and enhance visual inspections.”

PG&E also said it will do more to trim “overhanging branches and limbs directly above and around power lines, and trees that are at an increased risk of falling into lines.” It also will expand its network of weather stations, adding 1,300 more stations by 2022.

Dario de Ghetaldi, a Bay Area lawyer who’s suing PG&E on behalf of multiple Camp Fire survivors, said he hopes the measures will translate into meaningful improvements but “it’s too late for the victims of the Camp Fire.”

As for PG&E officials, de Ghetaldi said, “They talk a good game.”

PG&E launched an enhanced wildfire safety program earlier this year, following the disastrous wine country fires of 2017. That program includes preventive blackouts when wind gusts and other weather conditions point to increased fire risks. The utility implemented one such blackout in October but canceled another planned power shutdown that was scheduled for portions of Northern California, including Butte County, just before the Camp Fire started.

It remains uncertain whether a power shutoff would have prevented the Camp Fire. But state investigators are looking into whether a faulty PG&E transmission tower started the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has already told the Public Utilities commission that a power line experienced a problem in the vicinity of where the fire started, about 15 minutes before it ignited, in a remote community called Pulga.

Since then, the company has been hit with scores of lawsuits. The PUC ordered PG&E to overhaul its corporate culture to improve public safety. The federal judge overseeing the company’s criminal case from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion has told PG&E officials to explain whether any of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires represent a violation of the terms of the company’s probation. Parent company PG&E Corp., already facing potential claims in the billions from the 2017 wine country fires, has seen its stock price has fallen roughly in half since the Camp Fire erupted Nov. 8.

Also Monday, PG&E said it will take additional steps to help the Paradise community recover, including naming a “rebuilding officer” to work with local officials. The company pledged to provide “additional resources such as housing and support services.”

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