PG&E May Have Failed to Remove Tree Suspected of Sparking Zogg Fire

An aerial photo submitted to court records shows a large pine tree that may have sparked the Zogg Fire that killed four in September 2020.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A large pine tree suspected of causing the Zogg Fire that killed four people in Northern California in September was potentially flagged for removal two years ago but never taken down, Pacific Gas and Electric revealed in a court filing Wednesday.

PG&E could not confirm with 100% certainty that a tall gray pine tree, parts of which were collected as evidence by state fire investigators, was the same one tagged for removal in 2018, but two pine trees in that location were identified as needing to be cut down and never worked on.

“PG&E currently believes the Gray Pine of interest may have been identified for removal (but not removed) during restoration efforts following the Carr Fire in 2018, based on certain records recently reviewed by PG&E concerning that restoration work,” the company stated in a court filing Wednesday.

Those are not the only two trees that were flagged but not removed in the area. According to PG&E, ten trees in the vicinity were marked “No” under a “tree worked” field in its database, indicating they were tagged for trimming or removal but never worked on.

PG&E said it is still investigating the cause of the failure but speculated that a nearby resident may be partly to blame. In October 2018, a Zogg Mine Road resident “who believed that PG&E crews were cutting trees unnecessarily” interrupted tree work, brandished a firearm and threatened to do so again, according to the company.

Steps were taken to get a police escort and protect tree crews at that time, but then the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8, 2018, and “resources were shifted to the post-Camp Fire response.”

The two trees in question were flagged for removal by an inspector working for Mountain G Enterprises, a PG&E contractor, and separately by a quality control inspector with California Forestry and Vegetation Management, another PG&E contractor. Mountain F, a Mountain G affiliate, or its subcontractors were supposed to do tree work prescribed by inspectors, but some of that work was never completed.

That was not the only potential misstep in this saga. At least two routine patrols were conducted in that area over the last two years, but the two pine trees previously flagged for removal were not identified by inspectors in subsequent checks.

In 2019, PG&E was supposed to conduct an enhanced inspection, known as a Catastrophic Event Memorandum Account patrol, in the area. That inspection could have identified trees previously flagged for removal but not taken down, but the enhanced patrol never took place due to a scheduling glitch.

“The fact that a separate CEMA inspection was not performed when the schedule would have caused it to be completed close in time to a routine patrol is consistent with guidance from PG&E’s vegetation management team in 2019,” the company said in its court filing.

The court filing was submitted in response to U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s demand that PG&E provide more information on its potential role in sparking the Zogg Fire in Shasta County on Sept. 27. The blaze burned 56,000 acres over 16 days, destroyed 204 structures and killed four people, including a mother and her 8-year-old daughter.

Alsup oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. The probation term expires in January 2022.

Last month, PG&E told Alsup that no one chose to keep the 12,000-volt Girvan Circuit distribution line powered in the area where the Zogg Fire sparked because its fire-risk model system never identified that line as one to be considered for de-energization.

Also on Wednesday, PG&E announced the appointment of Patricia “Patti” Poppe as the company’s new CEO starting on Jan. 4. Poppe currently heads Michigan’s largest utility company, Consumers Energy Company.

Last week, Sonoma County and other local government entities filed a $100 million lawsuit against PG&E over the 2019 Kincade Fire that burned over 77,000 acres and destroyed 374 structures. A broken PG&E jumper cable is suspected as the cause of the fire.

In July, PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after agreeing to pay $25.5 billion in settlements over claims that its equipment sparked a series of destructive wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. 

In June, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and received the maximum sentence, a $3.5 million fine, for its role in sparking the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings and destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County.

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