PG&E equipment caused no deadly fires this year, utility company says

Downed trees and branches would have likely triggered sparking on power lines 190 times if not for power shutoffs, PG&E says.

Pacific Gas & Electric defended its decision to shut off power across Northern California in October and November, saying no lives were lost this year in fires that may have been started by its equipment.

During a bankruptcy court hearing on Friday, the company submitted a court filing that claimed if the utility giant didn't shut off power in the region, downed trees and branches would have likely triggered sparking on power lines 190 times, threatening the lives of millions of customers, the Sacramento Bee reported.

The company's filing cited the phenomena of "arcing," which is when continuous sparking caused by electricity moving through the air and onto another surface. During the Oct. 23 shutdown alone, falling vegetation and trees damaged 19 power lines, 15 of which would have likely caused arcing had the lines been kept turned on and electrified, the company said.

That shutoff affected nearly 180,000 PG&E customers.

The PG&E statement "sets the bar unbelievably low, if that's the standard now: 'We didn't kill anybody,'" said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group.


For the utility's power shutdowns on Oct. 26 and Oct. 29, which caused outages for about 365,000 and 970,000 customers, respectively, the company found 241 combined instances of falling trees and vegetation damaging power lines. 175 of those instances likely would have caused arcing had PG&E kept power to those lines on.

A PG&E worker attempts to clear a fallen utility pole in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 8, 2018. (Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images, File)

The utility company's filing also noted structural damages in the area during its three power outages. On the Oct. 23 shutdown, PG&E discovered four cases of infrastructure damage that would have probably caused arcing, with the Oct. 26 and 29 power shutdowns likely causing similar arcing to structures in the region as well, the Sacramento Bee reported.

PG&E had previously received harsh criticism for their decision to turn off power from California lawmakers, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the public.


The company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January to cover $30 billion in liabilities caused by damage from wildfires in 2017 and 2018, with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali ruling against PG&E's favor on Wednesday. The federal judge stated the utility was liable under the inverse condemnation doctrine, which hold PG&E responsible for fires caused by their equipment, despite the fact that the company was not found to be negligent.

PG&E stock fell five percent early on Friday amid the fallout from Judge Montali's ruling against the utility company.

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Friday's filing was in response to inquiries from Judge William Alsup, who questioned the company in determining whether or not they had complied with the terms of their probation, which was handed down following a felony conviction in 2010 after one of their pipelines exploded.

The company has been criticized for not trimming the vegetation surrounding their power lines and for lack of maintenance on their equipment.

"PG&E welcomes the opportunity to continue our ongoing dialogue with the court about the extensive work we're doing to further strengthen our infrastructure and reduce wildfire risk," PG&E spokeswoman Karly Hernandez said in a statement obtained by the Sacramento Bee. "We share the court's focus on safety and recognize that we must take a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California. This reduction of risk is the sole focus of PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutoff program."


The Associated Press contributed to this report.