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California's Largest Utility Providers Face Pressure As Wildfires Continue To Burn


The wildfires ravaging parts of California have led to intense scrutiny of the state's largest utility companies. Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison both report there were problems with their infrastructure in the moments before two major fires erupted last week. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Ted Goldberg reports.

TED GOLDBERG, BYLINE: The most destructive and deadliest wildfire on state record started early last Thursday in a remote area of the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento. It was near the site of a PG&E electrical transmission line. Moments after the Camp Fire started, dispatchers were discussing dangerous power lines and high winds.


UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #1: I'm looking across under the high-tension power lines. There's a possible power line hazard.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: It is on the west side of the river. Underneath the transmission lines have about a 35-mile-an-hour sustained wind on it. This has got potential for a major incident.

GOLDBERG: That afternoon, PG&E filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission. There was an outage on a transmission line 14 minutes before the fire started. Southern California Edison filed a similar report. There was a disturbance on a circuit near the start of the Woolsey fire, north of Los Angeles, two minutes before it began. Both companies emphasized their reports are preliminary, but state fire officials blame PG&E for 16 wildfires in Northern California last year. For that reason, in part, some residents near the Camp Fire are already pointing fingers at the utility.

DORELLA MILLER: PG&E did this. And lots of people feel that way.

GOLDBERG: Dorella Miller is a resident of the town of Cherokee.

MILLER: PG&E is a rich company, a monopoly, and they started this fire. And it's wrong, and they need to pay for it.

GOLDBERG: Neither PG&E nor SoCal Edison would agree to be interviewed. PG&E says it's cooperating with investigators and assisting customers affected by the fire. On Tuesday, a group of residents and business owners fought a lawsuit against PG&E, accusing it of negligence.

JERRY HILL: I mean, at some point, we have to say enough is enough. And I think we need to seriously look at whether an investor-owned utility model is good for California.

GOLDBERG: State Sen. Jerry Hill is a critic of PG&E. He says he's looking into legislation that would break up the company or make it a government agency.

HILL: I mean, when profits are the reason that you're doing your job, that creates a question, especially in light of the safety aspect of it.

GOLDBERG: It's unclear how California's next governor will hold utilities accountable. That man is current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who takes over from Jerry Brown in January.


GAVIN NEWSOM: We're going to assess all those facts. The governor's in the process of doing the same, obviously, and we'll see where we are when the baton is handed.

GOLDBERG: But state regulators might not have to wait for the governor or the legislature. Not only can they punish PG&E with multimillion-dollar fines, they can also take away its exclusive right to be the region's energy provider. That's according to Steven Weissman, a lecturer at UC Berkeley and a former administrative judge at the utilities commission.

STEVEN WEISSMAN: How far can we take this utility in terms of making it financially responsible for the consequences of its action or its failure to act before the utility slips into bankruptcy?

GOLDBERG: California lawmakers tried to address that concern during a recent session. They approved legislation that allows utilities to pass on some of their fire-related costs to customers. For NPR News, I'm Ted Goldberg in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ted Goldberg