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Investigators link PG&E power lines to cause of Dixie Fire in Northern California

The fire burned more than 963,000 acres.

(CN) — The second largest wildfire in California’s history was caused by a tree falling on Pacific Gas and Electric power lines, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed Tuesday. 

“After a meticulous and thorough investigation, CAL FIRE has determined that the Dixie Fire was caused by a tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric located west of Cresta Dam,” Cal Fire said in a press release. 

The fire, which started on July 13, 2021, and was only 100% contained in October 2021, made its way through Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties. It burned 963,309 acres, destroying 1,329 structures and damaging an additional 95 buildings.

Cal Fire said it has forwarded its investigative report to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

"As we shared in our public statement in Chico in July after the start of the Dixie Fire, a large tree struck one of our normally operating lines," a statement issued from PG&E Tuesday night reads. "This tree was one of more than 8 million trees within strike distance to PG&E lines. Taking a bold step forward, PG&E has committed to burying 10,000 miles of lines in addition to the mitigations included in PG&E’s 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan."

"Regardless of today’s finding, we will continue to be tenacious in our efforts to stop fire ignitions from our equipment and to ensure that everyone and everything is always safe," the statement continued.

Days after the fire began, PG&E told the California Public Utilities Commission in a brief report that while a PG&E troubleman was investigating a power outage at Cresta Dam on July 13, he observed a fire near the base of a “what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree” that was leaning on a 12-kilovolt power line. He reported the fire and his supervisor called 911.

Transcripts of the 911 call were released to the public in August after a federal judge overseeing the utility company’s criminal probation for its convictions relating to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion demanded the information. That probation ends Jan. 25. 

U.S. District Judge William Alsup also questioned PG&E employees in September as to why power was left on in the circuit after the troubleman had initially seen a blown fuse on the power pole through his binoculars before he made it to the pole about four hours later, due to a temporary bridge closure that had blocked his way. 

The worker said he hadn’t seen any indications of a fire when he spotted the blown fuse and that it wasn’t the company’s policy to cut power to customers without a reason. 

This wasn’t the first time PG&E was involved in a major fire. In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for causing the 2018 Camp Fire, and it was fined $125 million and faces 33 criminal charges for the 2019 Kincade Fire. It also faces criminal charges relating to the 2020 Zogg Fire. 

On Monday, Alsup expressed his frustration that probation had seemingly done little to change PG&E’s behavior. 

“One of the things we hope for when we have a criminal like PG&E on probation is that they come to accept responsibility,” Alsup said. “In five years you’ve never done that. You’ve never accepted responsibility for any of these fires until it’s convenient to do so.”

A PG&E spokesperson after Monday’s hearing said the company has become a “fundamentally safer company” since the San Bruno explosion but knows it has more work to do. 

A federal monitor’s report in November, which noted that PG&E equipment has been associated with at least one major wildfire every year since 2017, indicated that the utility company has substantially improved over the last several years but that “results on the Electric Operations side have been inadequate and substantial additional improvement and investment is required after probation ends.”

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