A sign calling for utility company PG&E to turn the power back on during a statewide blackout in Calistoga, California, on October 10 2019. Picture: AFP/JOSH EDELSON
A sign calling for utility company PG&E to turn the power back on during a statewide blackout in Calistoga, California, on October 10 2019. Picture: AFP/JOSH EDELSON

San Francisco — Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) said it has identified at least 190 instances in late October in which contact between vegetation and power lines on windy days probably would have caused electric hazards if the lines hadn’t been de-energised to prevent fires.

The utility filed a written response on Friday to questions raised by a federal judge over a power line that failed minutes before a massive wildfire broke out last month in wine country an hour north of San Francisco.

US district judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company’s criminal probation, is trying to determine whether PG&E’s equipment is to blame for any of 2019’s wildfires in northern California, as well as how the state’s largest utility managed widespread power outages as a fire prevention measure.

Several of Alsup’s questions concerned so-called jumper cables, one of which the company said had broken near the ignition point for the October 23 Kincade Fire, which burned for two weeks and destroyed 374 structures.

PG&E’s equipment has been tied to wildfires that devastated parts of northern California in 2017 and 2018, saddling the company with an estimated $30bn in liabilities and forcing it into bankruptcy. A loose PG&E jumper wire was found to have contributed to last year’s Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and razed the town of Paradise.

Alsup asked for detailed information about PG&E’s preventive blackouts, and for the utility’s response to a televised report suggesting that power shutdowns themselves have sparked wildfires.

The judge also directed PG&E to report on how much damage has been done and how many lives have been lost in blazes that its equipment may have caused in 2019. Given the utility’s widespread shut-offs, Alsup said in his order that he’s inclined to think damages and deaths are lower this year, “but the court (and the public) would appreciate a more precise answer”.

The utility has said it switched off lower-voltage distribution lines before the Kincade fire broke out, in anticipation of high winds, but the company kept larger transmission lines energised. PG&E CEO Bill Johnson has said the jumper cable — along a transmission line — had been recently inspected and was in good condition.

Bloomberg