Newly surfaced communications between PG&E and federal regulators show that the utility was intending to do safety work on the Caribou-Palermo line as far back as 2013.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting, via records given to the paper by consumer advocates and attorneys for victims of the Camp Fire, that PG&E had plans to replace multiple towers, wires, and other pieces of hardware on the line beginning six years ago. That maintenance work was deferred repeatedly in the intervening years, with the last plans to start work in June 2018 — though that work never began.
Pieces of the Caribou-Palermo transmission line are almost a century old — some of them in operation since it first went online in 1921. The line connects the Caribou Powerhouse in Plumas National Forest with the Palermo substation in Oroville, more than sixty miles to the south west. As the Journal explains, "The line wends over hard-to-access ridges and across steep draws along the north fork of the Feather River, some towers perching on rocky outcrops."
We learned earlier, via PG&E's own reports, that the Caribou-Palermo line malfunctioned the morning of November 8, 13 minutes before a PG&E employee observed a quarter-acre fire that was sparked beneath one of the towers on the line, north east of Paradise. That employee was apparently in the area because of high-wind conditions, and had already observed the snapped line creating an electric arc that scorched the tower itself.
Also being reported for the first time in the Journal's piece is the fact that PG&E shut down the line in December after closer inspections. There's currently no date for when the Caribou-Palermo line will be back in service.
ABC 7 spoke with consumer advocate Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network, who said, "[PG&E] promised to fix it in 2013, they promised to fix it in 2014 and 2015 and 2016, it is not fixed today and that is the line that failed before the fire."
The cause of the Camp Fire officially remains undetermined as CalFire continues its investigation. The Public Utilities Commission is also conducting its own investigation into PG&E's maintenance records, as they tell ABC 7, and they say that PG&E "is subject to fines of up to $100,000 per violation per day."
Following the Wall Street Journal report, PG&E issued a statement Thursday, per the New York Times, saying it "believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire."
The Camp Fire took the lives of 85 people and was the most destructive wildfire in state history. Anticipating liabilities in the hundreds of billions, for both this and the 2017 wine country fires, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in late January.
Photo: The Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, via NASA Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager