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Massive Dixie Fire started by PG&E equipment, Cal Fire investigators conclude

Andrew Nixon
The Dixie Fire, visible from Highway 70, along the Feather River on Wednesday, July 20, 2021.

Updated Jan. 5, 2022 at 12:22 p.m.

Cal Fire investigators announced Tuesday night that the massive Dixie Fire in Northern California was caused by a tree contacting a PG&E distribution line west of the Cresta Dam.

It’s the latest in a string of devastating wildfires allegedly caused by the utility’s equipment

The Dixie Fire started on July 13, 2021, and grew to the second-largest fire in state history, burning over 960,000 acres and destroying over 1,300 structures. It decimated the rural town of Greenville and damaged other communities in Plumas, Butte, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties. It was the first known fire to burn clear across the Sierra Nevada mountain range, followed later in the year by the Caldor Fire.

The fire caused severe damage to forestland and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

The utility giant said in a statement that it “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.” Those efforts include a multi-billion dollar undertaking to bury 10,000 miles of powerlines and to keep cutting off power in areas where there’s high wind.

The announcement is not a total surprise. In July, PG&E reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that its equipment may have caused the Dixie Fire. One of the utility’s employees responded to a power outage reported at Cresta Dam and found blown fuses and a tree leaning into PG&E equipment, with fire burning at the tree’s base.

At the time, Cal Fire investigators took several pieces of PG&E equipment.

Last year, Cal Fire investigators concluded the utility started the Zogg Fire, which burned 56,000 acres and killed four people. The Shasta County District Attorney’s Office charged the utility with manslaughter and other crimes in September.

In 2018, PG&E’s equipment started the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County. The fire leveled the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. PG&E later pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter. In the following months, the company sought bankruptcy protection as it faced tens of billions of dollars in potential liability for wildfires it caused.

Many survivors of wildfires caused by PG&E have had difficulty accessing payments promised by the utility.

In April, the California Public Utilities Commission imposed “enhanced oversight” on PG&E after the company failed to remove and trim trees from its riskiest power lines.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include PG&E’s statement.

Scott Rodd previously covered government and legal affairs for the Sacramento Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Scott worked as a freelance reporter in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., contributing to the Washington Post, New York Times, Stateline, the New York Observer and Next City. Scott grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and studied English literature at Susquehanna University.
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