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Q&A: NSPR’s Andre Byik On Federal Judge’s Inquiry Into Dixie Fire Cause

California Wildfires
Noah Berger/AP
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FR34727 AP
Flames consume buildings as the Dixie Fire tears through the Greenville community of Plumas County, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

The federal judge who has been overseeing Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s criminal probation has been asking the utility about its possible role in starting the Dixie Fire.

NSPR Reporter Andre Byik has been reviewing the judge’s questions and PG&E’s answers, the most recent of which came in court filings Wednesday.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On the judge’s case history and what information he wants to know

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco has been overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation term since 2017. That probation was connected to PG&E’s guilt in a 2010 gas pipeline explosion in a neighborhood in San Bruno that killed eight people and wounded dozens more.

Alsup was also the judge who ordered PG&E’s board of directors and CEO to visit the town of Paradise to see and hear about the harm the utility caused in the Camp Fire. PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and a single count of recklessly starting the Camp Fire, following an investigation by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

The judge has taken an acute interest in PG&E’s operations and steps taken to try to stop causing deadly and destructive wildfires.

Shortly after the Dixie Fire started on July 13, Judge Alsup started issuing orders asking PG&E for information about what it knows about the possibility of the utility’s equipment helping start the Dixie Fire.

PG&E has said the fire started near one of its distribution lines at the Feather River Canyon near the borders of Plumas and Butte counties. A tree, a Douglas fir, was found leaning against lines there. Investigators have said they’ve pinpointed the origin of the fire to that location near the line, though no official cause has been announced yet.

On the type of information the court is looking for

The district court has been seeking specific information about PG&E’s equipment, including the line a tree fell into, and a timeline of what happened starting the morning of July 13. More broadly, the judge is asking PG&E for everything it knows about how its equipment may have been involved in starting the Dixie Fire, as well as how employees responded to the reported disruption on the line.

PG&E told the judge that a disruption on that specific line – it’s identified as the Bucks Creek 1101 12,000-volt line – started around 6:50 the morning of July 13. A loss of power was reported at the Cresta Dam along Highway 70.

On what PG&E is telling the judge 

The company has been providing incident reports, details about its lines, photographs of the scene – including photos of the tree that fell over – and a sort of timeline about what it knew and when. One of the factors that has caught the attention of the court is the work a PG&E troubleman did investigating reported problems on the line the day the Dixie Fire started.

The troubleman provided a declaration describing his hours-long trek to reach the scene where problems on the line were reported.

His identity is shielded in court documents. But in his statement, he says he first received an order, or tag, around 10:30 the morning of July 13 to check a fuse on that Bucks Creek line at the Cresta Dam. He says he was in Chico at the time and started making his way toward the dam, clearing another tag he had on the way there.

The troubleman says he reached the dam around 12:30 in the afternoon, noticed power was out but couldn’t locate a problem. He says he took out his binoculars and looked across the Feather River, noticing a fuse appeared to be hanging down from a pole.

He describes setting forth, basically trying to get to that pole. The route took him through a long, unpaved and narrow access road, where he says couldn’t drive more than 3 miles per hour. He ultimately reaches a Butte County roads crew working on a bridge that tells him it’d be about two hours before he could pass over the bridge to get to where he needs to go.

So, the troubleman drives back along the access road so he can get cell service to get further instructions from a district operator. At this point it’s about 3 in the afternoon. They decide he should stay in the area to wait for the bridge to reopen.

He says he drove back to the bridge and got there at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The road crew appeared done for the day, and the troubleman says he passed by a “road closed” sign and over the bridge, finally reaching the pole at around 4:40 in the afternoon.

He says he noticed fuses had been tripped and he could smell smoke as he got out of his truck but assumed it was from the Sugar Fire in the Beckwourth Complex that was burning in Plumas County.

He says as he began his work, he could see fire downhill from where he was near another pole. At this point he estimates the fire was about 600-800 square feet in size. He says he noticed a tree hanging on the line. And he says he started fighting the fire with the equipment he had, which included a fire extinguisher and a pressurized water extinguisher.

He says he noticed a Cal Fire spotter plane around 5:30 in the afternoon, and then around 7 p.m. he was met by a Cal Fire ground crew. By 8 p.m. Cal Fire basically told the troubleman, you’re no longer needed, we got it from here.

On what the court thinks about all this

Well, the judge last week issued an order basically asking for even more details about the troubleman’s actions that day. The questions being asked, I think, show that the court isn’t fully satisfied with what’s been given to it thus far.

The court notes that a disruption on the line was first reported at around 6:50 the morning of July 13, but ten hours later, when the troubleman arrived on the scene, he said the fire he encountered was about 600-800 square feet in size. The court is postulating that if a fire had started around the time of that morning disruption the fire would have been larger. It is asking what accounts for that.

The court is asking if the troubleman heard any arcing on the line. The court is asking whether the troubleman actually replaced any fuses when he got on scene, and whether power could have been restored while a tree was leaning against the lines.

The court says no one saw any fire until the troubleman got to the scene, and the court asks what, if anything, did the troubleman do that might have accidentally caused the fire.

On whether PG&E has answered those questions

It has until the end of this month, August 31, to do so. The court has also asked PG&E to produce the troubleman for questioning at a hearing set for September 13. The court threatened to issue a subpoena for his appearance, but the troubleman communicated to the court through his attorneys that he’ll show up voluntarily.

Again, it should be noted Cal Fire has not announced a cause of the Dixie Fire. I believe the questions show the court’s determination to get as many details as it can in the meantime.

On whether it is unusual for a judge to ask for this information

Well, it’s not unusual for this judge to be asking these questions. Over the years he’s modified the conditions of PG&E’s probation several times following destructive wildfires. He’s also called PG&E untrustworthy in its reports to the court. When Judge Alsup modified PG&E’s conditions of probation after the Camp Fire, he said he was doing so to protect California from further mayhem by the utility. But he also noted at the time that PG&E’s probation ends in January 2022, and it can’t be extended. The judge said as PG&E moves on from its probation status, there’s still much for the Governor’s Office, the Legislature and regulators to consider related to PG&E, its wildfire mitigation plan and its vegetation management.

Listen to the entire episode of the DIXIE FIRE: Special Coverage here.

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