PG&E Corp. equipment started more than one fire a day in California on average in recent years as a historic drought turned the region into a tinderbox. The utility’s unsuccessful efforts to prevent such blazes have put it in a state of crisis.
The fires included one on Oct. 8, 2017, when nearly 50-mph winds snapped an alder tree in California’s Sonoma County wine country. The tree’s top hit a half-century-old PG&E power line and knocked it into a dry grass field, a state investigation found. The line set the grass ablaze, sparking what became known as the Nuns Fire. It was among at least 17 major wildfires that year that California investigators have tied to PG&E
. Data from the state firefighting agency, Cal Fire, show the fires together scorched 193,743 acres in eight counties, destroyed 3,256 structures and killed 22 people.
California’s largest utility, with a history of safety and maintenance problems, has been scrambling for five years to reduce fire risks. It has been overwhelmed by the threat’s severity and the challenge of shoring up thousands of miles of aging power lines and cutting and trimming millions of trees in a service area larger than Florida, according to a Wall Street Journal review of court records, regulatory filings and interviews with current and former regulators and company employees.
PG&E faces billions of dollars in legal claims, the specter of bankruptcy, a federal judge forcing his way into utility operations, the possibility state regulators will break it into pieces, and potential state criminal charges including homicide, due to its continued inability to stop the fires from starting. “It’s an organization facing collapse,” said Arthur O’Donnell, a safety supervisor at the California Public Utilities Commission until late last year. “There aren’t any silver bullets that can fix things quickly.”
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