PG&E issues report explaining why it didn’t shut down power before Camp Fire

CPUC report details why utility decided to keep power on

Power lines are seen against a smoky landscape near Pulga, California, east of Paradise, California on November 11, 2018. – Search teams scoured the carnage of California’s most destructive ever wildfire for victims on Sunday, as the state-wide death toll rose to 26 with high winds hampering the effort to rescue property and save lives. At least 23 people have lost their lives in and around the Paradise community of 27,000, according to an official count by authorities. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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PG&E on Tuesday issued an explanation why it decided against interrupting power to Butte County communities on Nov. 8, but failed to explain why that decision came at 1 p.m. — more than six hours after the Camp Fire conflagration began its deadly march toward Paradise.

In its report to state regulators, PG&E said it opted not to interrupt power because winds were decreasing and conditions no longer met the company’s emergency criteria. The utility did not divulge whether its experts discussed weather conditions in the morning, either before the fire started or as it was quickly spreading.

The utility had warned 70,000 customers for two days before the fire of a impending power shutdown Thursday morning, even tweeting out a warning at 7:56 a.m. that the power interruption was still an option.

The utility did not provide specifics of what weather data failed to meet their shutdown thresholds and the Camp Fire was not mentioned at all in the report. The company also did not comment specifically about conditions near Pulga, where the fire started around 6:33 a.m., and where a weather station showed most of the utility’s power interruption standards appeared to have been met.

PG&E reported a transmission line malfunction in the area 15 minutes before the fire started.

“By around (1 p.m.) on Thursday, Nov. 8, winds were decreasing, and conditions were no longer forecast to approach (Public Safety Power Shutoff) criteria,” wrote Patrick Hogan, PG&E senior vice president electrical operations, in the report. “Based on the forecasted information, PG&E no longer anticipated a possible need to de-energize. PG&E immediately informed all stakeholders of the change in conditions and that no lines would be proactively de-energized.”

Attorney Frank Pitre, who is suing the utility on behalf of more than 600 clients over the deadly wine country fires last year, said it boggled the mind how the company made that final call to keep power on after the Camp Fire already destroyed the town of Paradise.

“The report PG&E submitted to the PUC confirms the obvious — they had the ability to shut down the power during weather conditions comparable to that preceding the start of the fire,” Pitre said. “PG&E has once again failed to learn from past history. You don’t gamble when it comes to the risk of a wildfire. Shut off the power when in doubt, as the potential consequence of failing to do has repeatedly been illustrated by the recent victims of the Butte, North Bay and Camp Fire calamities.”

At the Jarbo Gap weather station, two hours before the Camp Fire erupted at 6:30 a.m., sustained wind speeds hit 32 mph with gusts of up to 52 mph. PG&E’s wind criteria for a shutdown is sustained winds of 25 mph with gusts in excess of 45 mph. A red flag warning was in effect and the vegetation was bone dry, also meeting the utility’s standards, and more than 70,000 customers in nine counties had been given the necessary warning of an possible shutdown.

The California Public Utilities Commission requires utilities to issue a report on Public Safety Power Shutoffs when electricity is cut, and also, as in the Camp Fire situation, when the utility warns the public of a shutdown but decides against it. The CPUC has said in the past that it is investigating why PG&E decided against shutting down power as part of its wider probe into PG&E’s possible role in the blaze.

One change in Tuesday’s report is a footnote PG&E added to its criteria for shutdowns. In previous reports and documents listing its weather standards policy for an emergency shutdown, the company included six bullet points for what weather thresholds must be met to shut down the power as “last resort.”

The requirements appear identical as before in Tuesday’s report, including the wind standard: “Forecasted sustained winds above approximately 25 mph and wind gusts in excess of approximately 45 mph.”

However, for the first time, PG&E added a footnote to the wind standards: “PG&E damage prediction model is utilized to understand if winds are expected to produce elevated outage conditions.”

PG&E explained in the report that it activated its Emergency Operations Center on Nov. 6 when the forecast changed and it “predicted extreme fire danger and high wind conditions” two days later. The utility initially warned 70,000 customers across nine counties they may lose power, but it dropped the impacted areas to 63,000 customers by Nov. 7.

“Weather conditions stayed consistent, nearing but not reaching forecasted levels that would warrant temporarily turning off power for customer safety,” Hogan wrote in the report.

“As we have expressed previously, turning off power to our customers is a decision that does not come easily, is not made lightly, and will be exercised only as a last resort,” Hogan wrote.

PG&E’s policy also prevents it from shutting down transmission lines at or above 115,000 volts, meaning it would not have powered down the Caribou-Palermo line that suffered a malfunction minutes before the fire started near Pulga. However, Cal Fire is investigating a possible “second start” in Concow where the utility reported a power issue around the same area and time. The utility has confirmed that distribution line was part of the tentative shut down plan Nov. 8.

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