PG&E Corp. rolled out its 2021 wildfire safety plan Friday, promising to focus its efforts on the most vulnerable parts of California but warning that the state is likely to face another difficult season.
Under constant scrutiny for its painful record on wildfires, the state’s largest utility said its safety plan will prioritize the highest-risk areas of its service territory for trimming trees and making its power equipment more fire-resilient.
Yet PG&E, which has been faulted for sparking some of the largest and deadliest fires in California’s history, said wildfire risk will remain an ever-increasing issue for the state. Last year saw 4 million acres burn across California, the most in the state’s modern history.
“Wildfire risk is continue to grow,” said Matthew Pender, the utility’s director of community wildfire safety. “We are planning around and operating under that assumption.
“We anticipate fire seasons to continue to be very extreme.”
The horrific fires of 2017 and 2018 drove PG&E into bankruptcy. Its efforts to reduce risk in 2019 by imposing massive “public safety power shutoffs” infuriated Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials after millions lost power and PG&E’s equipment caused a big fire anyway, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. Recently a federal judge said shortcomings in the utility’s tree-trimming program may have contributed to a deadly fire last September in Shasta County.
Pender said PG&E expects to spend around $3 billion this year on wildfire safety, up from $2.6 billion last year. Among other things, he said PG&E is hiring 200 additional inspectors “to confirm that we’re doing vegetation management the right way.”
The utility also plans to accelerate its efforts to install more fire-resilient power poles and, where possible, replace overhead lines with underground wires, Pender said.
An updated risk model will enable PG&E to focus more of its efforts on the most fire-prone areas. Equipment that “sectionalizes” the grid has enabled PG&E to significantly reduce the footprint of its safety shutoffs. As it is, none of the deliberate blackouts imposed last year were as widespread as the 2019 power shutoffs.
Yet even as it fine-tunes its safety program, the utility continues to struggle to eliminate wildfire risk completely across its 70,000-square-mile territory.
After pleading guilty to manslaughter charges last year in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire — the deadliest in California history — PG&E is facing a new criminal investigation into whether its equipment triggered the Zogg Fire. Cal Fire investigators seized PG&E’s power equipment after the fire killed four people in Shasta County last September.
Other legal problems loom. The judge overseeing PG&E’s probation status — the legacy of its conviction in connection with the 2010 pipeline disaster in San Bruno — is considering imposing new punishments on the utility because of the Zogg Fire.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a persistent critic of PG&E, has said the utility “failed to perform work on trees that had been designated for removal or trimming” near the spot where the Zogg Fire started.
Damages from the Zogg Fire could exceed $275 million, PG&E has disclosed. Those costs would come on top of the $625 million in potential claims from the Kincade Fire, which investigators say was caused by a faulty PG&E transmission line. Separately, PG&E agreed to pay $13.5 billion to cover uninsured losses from the Camp Fire and the 2017 wine-country fires, which plunged the utility into bankruptcy.