As the Camp Fire burned in Butte County, public attention was transfixed on the risk many Californians face when it comes to wildfires. Thousands of people who live in the so-called wildland-urban interface — the border between rural areas and cities — have been affected in recent years as the same scenario plays out with stunning familiarity.
Regulators sought solutions for this problem once before and in 2014 began requiring utility companies to report when there is a fire incident on one of their power lines. Over a four-year period, there have been 2,009 such incidents reported — many of them small.
The data, obtained from the California Public Utilities Commission, show that PG&E experiences significantly more fire incidents than other large utilities in the state. One reason could be the nature of its service area which includes many of the state’s rural counties in the north. But the frequency is still stark when compared to others, including Southern California Edison which serves a customer base similar in size to PG&E’s.
The suspected cause of the Camp Fire is a power line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, a fact that has hurled the San Francisco-based utility into another crisis related to damaging wildfires. Fire investigators have found the company’s infrastructure at fault for some of California’s worst fires in that last three years.
The ignition that started the 151,000-acre Camp Fire — now the deadliest blaze in state history — was outside the small town of Paradise. The cause is still under investigation, but PG&E is girding itself for a wave of lawsuits from those affected.