Radio Dispatches Show PG&E Equipment Near Camp Fire Ignition

The Mercury News reports early radio transmissions from first responders show PG&E equipment was present near the ignition of the Camp Fire.

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A PG&E map of the Camp Fire area, exclusively obtained by this news organization, raises new questions about the utility’s power-shutoff policies and its decision to keep electricity flowing in advance of the deadly and destructive blaze.

The map, received from a PG&E official by Butte County chief administrative officer Shari McCracken, includes red lines overlaying the towns of Paradise, Magalia and others like a swarm of aggressive tapeworms. The red indicates the distribution lines that PG&E had planned to de-energize in advance of high winds and other dangerous fire conditions forecast for the morning of Nov. 8 — a plan the utility ultimately decided was unnecessary.

The shutoff area shown on the map did not include the high-voltage transmission line that malfunctioned near where the fire first was reported. PG&E explained that it has a policy of not cutting power to lines 115,000 volts or higher — but regulators interviewed in the wake of the disaster said this week there are no state and federal policies that prevent it.

The map reveals, for the first time, that PG&E did initially consider de-energizing a line near the town of Concow that went out 17 minutes after the first reported fire. A second fire reportedly ignited near that line, which may have helped feed the deadly Camp Fire on its march through Magalia, Concow and Paradise, where it has killed at least 81 people and destroyed thousands of homes. Nearly 900 people are still unaccounted for.

“If PG&E has knowledge that there are high risk fire conditions, (it) should probably not restrict itself on what types of lines can or cannot be shut down,” said attorney Britt Strottman, who represented the city of San Bruno in its lawsuit against PG&E for the deadly pipeline explosion. “PG&E and the (California Public Utilities Commission), as PG&E’s regulator, should also actively work together on deciding which lines should be shut down.”

PG&E has said it decided on Nov. 8 — after the fire started hours earlier that day — that the forecasted weather conditions did not meet its criteria for a Public Safety Power Shutoff after all but has declined to provide further details of its decision-making process. The company did provide an explanation why it keeps its highest voltage lines operational even during the worst storms.

“In light of the potential public safety issues resulting from de-energizing higher voltage transmission lines, including the potential to impact millions of people and create larger system stability issues for the grid, PG&E has not extended the (shutoff) program to transmission lines that operate at 115kV or above,” spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said. She added that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates transmission lines and such an emergency shutdown would need to be coordinated with the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s power grid.

But state and federal regulators say PG&E can shut down transmission lines of any size at its own discretion.

“The transmission owners are solely responsible for operating their transmission and distribution lines and they can de-energize transmission and distribution lines without seeking approval from the ISO, with or without prior notice,” Cal ISO spokesman Steven Greenlee said. “The transmission owner tells us that they are de-energizing a line and if a 230kV or 500kV line is de-energized it may require (us) to re-dispatch generation if the remaining lines become heavily loaded. This is a practice we perform every day with scheduled work and unplanned outages.

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper also said the decision is up to the individual utility.

“Utilities can de-energize whatever lines and voltage they deem appropriate,” Prosper said. “They typically de-energize distribution lines because those lines are more localized than transmission lines.”

FERC Spokesman Craig Cano said PG&E would not need its approval to cut power to high-voltage lines for safety reasons.

“FERC-approved standards address transmission system reliability and explicitly exclude safety matters, which could be the reason for shutting down a power line in response to wildfires or to mitigate the risk of fires,” he said.

One of the two largest Southern California utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric, has no such restrictions on the size of lines de-energized, said spokeswoman Allison Torres.

“Our highly-trained personnel monitor conditions 24/7, and if conditions ever threaten the integrity of our system, we will de-energize for public safety,” she said.

“Transmission lines are under the control of the California Independent System Operator in coordination with Southern California Edison and have implications on the statewide and regional electric grid potentially impacting millions of customers,” spokesman David Song said. “They also tend to have much wider set-backs for vegetation clearance than distribution lines and are significantly less prone to fail during extreme weather events.”Southern California Edison, on the other hand, only does emergency shutdowns of facilities at 66,000 volts or lower, a spokesman said.

Attorney Frank Pitre, who is co-counsel representing more than 600 victims who are suing PG&E over the deadly North Bay fires last year, said the safety distinction between transmission and distribution lines is moot.

“When transmission lines blow, there is a shower of sparks akin to fireworks on the Fourth of July,” he said. “All it takes is one spark to ignite a fire. If that occurs during high-wind conditions, with dry vegetation below, you have a calamity.”

Firefighter radio transmissions indicate the Camp Fire started underneath high-tension power lines, and winds buffeted the flames from the managed vegetation area beneath the lines to the surrounding wild brush and timber. No cause has been determined for the fire, now the deadliest wildfire in California history, but Cal Fire has said its probe includes electrical infrastructure.

In light of a possible high-voltage-sparked deadly wildfire, is PG&E re-thinking its policy?

“As of right now, PG&E has not extended the Public Safety Power Shutoff Program to transmission lines that operate at 115kV or above,” spokeswoman Andrea Menniti said.

Pitre said PG&E needs to open up the books on their inspection and maintenance records from the area, particularly in light of its checkered history in the Feather River Canyon, including millions of dollars in settlements.

“If you are going to operate equipment at the margins of failure,” Pitre said, “then you better have a plan to shut down lines during adverse weather conditions to prevent the risk of a catastrophic event like a wildfire.”

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