SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A healthy-looking Douglas fir that fell on a Pacific Gas and Electric power line in a remote area of Plumas County sparked what is currently the second largest wildfire in recorded California history, a PG&E line worker told an emergency dispatcher in July.
Transcripts of the unnamed PG&E worker’s conversation with a 911 dispatcher were released publicly on Tuesday in response to a demand for information by the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to answer multiple questions about the line worker’s actions on July 13, the day that worker discovered flames near a toppled tree leaning on a 12-kilovolt power line in Feather River Canyon near the Cresta Dam off Highway 70. Alsup also demanded transcripts of the worker’s phone conversations with 911 and Cal Fire.
“There’s a tree on the line that started the fire,” the PG&E worker told an emergency dispatcher at 10:49 p.m. on July 13, according to transcripts submitted to the court Tuesday.
The worker previously reported that it appeared to be a “healthy green tree.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, seized parts of the tree and PG&E equipment, including three fuses from a nearby pole, two of which had blown earlier in the day.
In its answers to Judge Alsup’s questions, PG&E said photos taken by Cal Fire show the bottom portion of the Douglas fir broke away from its stump. A PG&E tree expert who reviewed the photos reported that one of the tree's eight roots "shows signs of internal rot," but the arborist said he could not determine why it fell down without further investigation.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, PG&E spokesman James Noonan emphasized that the company hasn't reached any conclusions as to why the tree involved in the Dixie Fire investigation failed, or whether rot contributed to the failure.
"The tree appeared to have green canopy, was approximately 40 feet away from PG&E lines and appeared to have rot in one of eight roots," Noonan said. "Our inspectors look for visible signs of potential rot and other conditions that can weaken a tree."
Noonan added that PG&E inspects 100,000 miles of overhead power lines every year, including locations in high fire-threat areas that are inspected multiple times per year. He said the company has pruned or cut down more than 1 million trees and continues to inspect and maintain vegetation around its power lines.
A line disruption was detected near the Dixie Fire's origin at 6:48 a.m. on July 13, but the PG&E worker didn’t arrive on the scene until about 4:40 p.m., nearly 10 hours later. The worker said he was delayed due to road work and a bridge closure. Upon arriving, the worker saw two blown fuses on a power pole about 200 feet away from flames that were spotted on the ground.
Judge Alsup asked PG&E to explain why the worker observed a small fire in the area 10 hours after a line disruption was detected. If the fire started when the disruption occurred, it would have grown much larger by that time, he surmised.
“PG&E agrees that the size of the fire when the line worker observed it after 4:40 p.m., and the lack of any other known indications of a fire before then, suggest that the fire had not been burning long at that time,” the company stated in its answer, adding that no evidence suggests the fire started that morning.
The judge also asked if the worker did anything upon his arrival that might have accidentally sparked the fire. In a sworn declaration, the PG&E worker denied having done anything to cause the blaze.
“It is clear to me that the fire had started before I arrived,” the worker testified. “I base this conclusion on the fact that as soon as I arrived and exited my vehicle I smelled smoke. I also base this conclusion on the fact that I saw the fire within minutes of my arrival, and it was already between 600 and 800 square feet in size.”
When the worker first smelled smoke, he said he assumed it was from the nearby Sugar Fire, which was ignited by lightning several days earlier. When he ascended in his bucket truck and saw flames, the worker said he immediately called for help, grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck and slid 60 to 80 yards downhill to try to fight the fire. The worker said he emptied his extinguisher, but it failed to put out the fire, according to another declaration he submitted on July 28.
The utility also answered questions about reports that its equipment may have sparked another fire, the Fly Fire, which later merged with Dixie Fire. A white fir that fell on a power line on July 22 is suspected of having caused that blaze. After reviewing photographs of the white fir in question, a PG&E arborist stated that he believes the tree uprooted before toppling onto the line.
PG&E said it has reached no conclusions as to why the white fir tree fell, but its tree expert observed “what looked to him like signs of rot in the root ball, which may have contributed to the tree’s uprooting.”
The company is scheduled to appear in Judge Alsup’s courtroom in San Francisco for a probation hearing on Sept. 13. Its worker who reported seeing flames near the origin of the Dixie Fire on July 13 has agreed to testify in open court during that hearing.
PG&E is under criminal probation for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes. Its probation term expires in January 2022.
The company paid more than $20 billion last year as part of its plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy brought on by billions of dollars in potential wildfire liabilities. The company’s equipment was blamed for sparking the Butte Fire in 2015, the North Bay wildfires in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018.
Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for its role in sparking the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in California history.Follow @NicholasIovino
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