PG&E reports faulty transmission tower near Geyserville wildfire site

In what could be another devastating blow to PG&E Corp., the troubled utility told California regulators Thursday that a transmission tower malfunctioned near the spot where the Kincade Fire ignited in northern Sonoma County.

In an incident report filed with the Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. reported that it found a “broken jumper” on the 230-kilovolt line near Kincade and Burned Mountain roads in the area between Cloverdale and Geyserville. PG&E has already come under intense criticism because of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, particularly last November’s Camp Fire in Butte County.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the tower trouble caused the Kincade Fire, which burned at least 10,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of 2,000 residents. Cal Fire said earlier Thursday it doesn’t know what caused the fire.

However, PG&E said that although it cut power to its low-voltage distribution lines in the Geyserville area Wednesday afternoon, as part of a precautionary move that affected 179,000 customers, it didn’t de-energize its high-voltage transmission lines.

The reason is that the wind speeds forecast for the area weren’t high enough to justify shutting down transmission lines. Chief Executive Bill Johnson said long-distance transmission lines can handle stronger wind gusts than distribution lines, which carry power to individual homes and businesses and are at a greater danger to come into contact with trees.

“That’s really where most of the fire risk is,” Johnson said.

Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s incident commander, added that transmission lines “are built to a different design standard” than distribution wires.

Johnson added that the transmission tower had been inspected four times in the past two years and, aside from minor maintenance issues, “appeared to be in excellent condition.”

The Public Utilities Commission said it will investigate PG&E’s tower report.

A broken PG&E transmission tower sparked last November’s Camp Fire, which destroyed most of Paradise and killed 85 people in California’s deadliest wildfire on record. Billions of dollars in liabilities from the Camp Fire, along with the October 2017 wine country fires, drove PG&E into bankruptcy.

The company had engineered a deliberate blackout to 179,000 homes and businesses just hours before the Kincade Fire started; the blackout area included much of the area around Geyserville. It was the second major blackout launched by PG&E in two weeks as the troubled utility remains under intense pressure from state officials to prevent any more big wildfires.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.