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PG&E Equipment May Have Sparked Dixie Fire in Northern California

The company told state regulators in a report Sunday night that state fire investigators had confiscated its equipment and parts of a tree that fell on PG&E’s power line in the same spot where flames broke out in Plumas County.

(CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power equipment may have sparked a fire that has burned more than 30,000 acres close to where the deadliest wildfire in California history scorched over 150,000 acres three years ago.

The Dixie Fire in Plumas and Butte Counties grew by more than 11,000 acres on Sunday night with more than 800 structures in danger of catching flames, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

A PG&E worker responding to a reported outage on July 13 saw two blown fuses and flames burning at the base of a tree that was leaning on a 12-kilovolt power line in Feather River Canyon in Plumas County, according to a report PG&E submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission Sunday night.

PG&E spokesperson Denny Boyles said the report was submitted “out of an abundance of caution” after Cal Fire seized the company’s equipment.

“PG&E is cooperating with CAL FIRE’s investigation,” Boyles said in an email.

Tony Brownell, operations chief of Cal Fire Incident Management Team I, said in a video Monday that the Dixie Fire was moving in two different directions Sunday and that fighting it was “very challenging.”  He said firefighters managed to get the southern half of the fire under control but are still working to stop the northern part of the blaze from spreading in other directions. The fire is 15% contained, according to Cal Fire.

Parts of Mount Lassen National Park were closed last week as the fire spread north.

It’s been just over a year since PG&E emerged from 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, the deadliest in state history, in 2018.

PG&E paid more than $20 billion to resolve claims for damages related to those fires, including an $11 billion settlement with insurers, $1 billion for local and regional government entities and $13.5 billion for individual wildfire victims, half of which depends on PG&E's stock value. A trustee who controls a fund for paying fire victims said in January that the trust was $1 billion short of its intended value due to PG&E’s lower than expected stock price.

PG&E’s stock price dipped another 5% to $9.28 per share on Monday upon news of its potential role in sparking the Dixie Fire.

In its regulatory filing, PG&E said its technician had trouble getting to the location of its damaged equipment near the Cresta Dam off Highway 70 due to a bridge closure and “challenging terrain.” The outage was reported at 7 a.m. on July 13, but the technician did not get to the location until about 4:40 p.m.

Upon arriving, the repairman noticed two of three fuses blown and “what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree” leaning on a 12-kilovolt power line, according to PG&E's regulatory filing. PG&E said its worker manually removed the third fuse and reported the fire to his supervisor, who called 911. An emergency operator reportedly told PG&E that Cal Fire had already been notified of the fire and was responding.

Cal Fire investigators collected parts of PG&E’s Bucks Creek 1101 12-kilovolt line, including conductor, jumpers, insulators and fuse cutouts along with portions of the tree that hit the line.

The suspected origin of the Dixie Fire is about 16 miles northeast of the town of Paradise. Paradise was destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history that killed at least 84 people, burned over 153,000 acres and wrecked 18,800 buildings.

That fire was caused by a worn C-hook that snapped off a century-old transmission tower on the Caribou Palermo line in Butte County. Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for its role in sparking the deadly blaze.

The company is currently being prosecuted in Sonoma County for its equipment’s alleged role in sparking the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed 174 buildings but resulted in no fatalities. PG&E is also being investigated for its suspected role in causing the Zogg Fire last year, which killed four people, including a mother and her 8-year-old daughter.

Follow Nicholas Iovino on Twitter.

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