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Judge blames deadly California wildfires on PG&E’s uninsulated power conductors

A federal judge Thursday blamed uninsulated power conductors owned by PG&E for the bulk of Northern California’s wildfires the past two years – including the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County – adding to the legal woes the utility is confronting.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company’s criminal probation from the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, said he has tentatively concluded that uninsulated power conductors lie at the heart of the wildfire crisis that has plunged PG&E into bankruptcy.

Alsup made his tentative conclusion as part of his plan, announced a week ago, to force PG&E to embark on a massive equipment inspection and tree-pruning program in advance of the upcoming fire season. He has given PG&E until next Wednesday to respond to that plan, which could also call for widespread blackouts this summer when winds gust to dangerous levels.

“The single most recurring cause of the large 2017 and 2018 wildfires attributable to PG&E’s equipment has been the susceptibility of PG&E’s distribution lines to trees or limbs falling onto them during high-wind events,” the judge wrote Thursday. “This has most often occurred in rural areas where distribution lines use thirty-five to fifty-foot single poles and run through grass, brush, oak and pines.

“The power conductors are almost always uninsulated. When the conductors are pushed together by falling trees or limbs, electrical sparks drop into the vegetation below.”

Alsup is holding a hearing Jan. 30 on his proposal to force PG&E to make dramatic upgrades in its fire safety program.

PG&E on Monday said it plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of the month as it struggles with liabilities that could exceed $30 billion from the November Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires. The Camp Fire killed 86 people, the most in California history, while more than 40 people perished in the wine country fires.

Cal Fire has blamed PG&E for 12 of the 2017 fires, although it hasn’t finished its investigation into the worst of the wine country blazes, the Tubbs Fire that devastated neighborhoods of Santa Rosa. It is still investigating the Camp Fire, although PG&E has disclosed problems with a high-voltage transmission tower the morning the fire started, in the area where it is believed to have ignited.

It’s unclear what impact Alsup’s findings would have on the avalanche of litigation PG&E is facing.

Attorney Dario de Ghetaldi, a Bay Area lawyer representing scores of survivors of the Camp Fire and other fires, said Alsup’s conclusion doesn’t address “the failure of PG&E’s vegetation management program.”

“We don’t know where he’s going with this,” de Ghetaldi said.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the company is reviewing Alsup’s conclusion.

“We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future,” Noonan said in a written statement.

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