We already knew, less than a week after the record-shattering Dixie Fire began last July, that PG&E would likely again be to blame for starting the blaze. And now Cal Fire has confirmed it with the conclusion of their investigation into the fire.
In an announcement Tuesday, Cal Fire said that it had concluded its "meticulous and thorough" investigation into the ignition of the fire, which happened on July 13, 2021 in an area near Cresta Dam. And investigators concluded that it was a tree coming into contact with a PG&E transmission line that sparked the blaze.
The Butte County district attorney will now, for the second time in three years, most certainly be bringing criminal charges against the utility, after already doing so in the far deadlier and more destructive 2018 Camp Fire. In that case, PG&E ended up pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of illegally setting a fire — though in other cases since, the company has held firm that it bears no criminal responsibility when a tree falls onto its lines and starts a fire.
"This tree was one of more than 8 million trees within strike distance to PG&E lines," the company said in a statement to the Associated Press on Tuesday. “Regardless of today’s finding, we will continue to be tenacious in our efforts to stop fire ignitions from our equipment and to ensure that everyone and everything is always safe."
But almost immediately after sharing the news that one of its workers was the first to observe the beginnings of the Dixie Fire at the base of one of its transmission poles, PG&E did a 180 on its longstanding position regarding the underground-ing of electrical lines — in a sure sign that the company brass finally understands that there can't avoid it. They only pledged to put 10,000 miles of line underground in the state's most fire-prone regions. This represents less than 10% of PG&E's total grid, but it's a start.
"We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop," said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe at the time. "We will partner with the best and the brightest to bring that stand to life. We will demand excellence of ourselves."
As the AP notes, accomplishing the task of burying 10,000 miles of line in the next ten years, as they promised, will take a "quantum leap" in terms of speed and effort. PG&E has been doing underground-ing projects for years, and the company averages about 70 miles per year.
The Dixie Fire grew to be the second-largest wildfire in recorded state history, burning 963,000 acres across five counties: Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama. Since it burned in primarily remote and unpopulated areas, it was not nearly as destructive as several recent fires, including the Camp Fire — which, incidentally, was sparked very near to the Dixie Fire ignition point. The Dixie Fire destroyed a total of 1,329 buildings, many of them in the Gold Rush-era town of Greenville, which burned to the ground in early August.
PG&E lines have been implicated in at least three wildfires in 2021, per the New York Times, and the company continues to face criminal charges in the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, and the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County. In both cases, PG&E has accepted investigators' findings about the cause of the fires, but it rejects any criminal responsibility.
It's only been a year and a half since PG&E emerged from a bankruptcy that was spurred by liability for the 2017 wildfires in the North Bay and the 2018 Camp Fire, and the company remains on corporate criminal probation.
The federal judge overseeing that probation, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, has not minced words in dealing with the company's lawyers over the past few years. Early last year, Alsup ordered the company to take more measures to prevent future fires, including removing more trees, and powering down more lines during windy conditions.
"We don’t have the luxury to wait around," Alsup said. "I am not open to the idea that we would kick the can down the road and study the problem to death."
It remains to be seen how the federal court will handle the news that PG&E lines sparked yet another enormous fire.
Top image: In an aerial view, the remains of homes and businesses that were destroyed by the Dixie Fire are visible on September 24, 2021 in Greenville, California. The Dixie Fire has burned nearly 1 million acres in five Northern California counties over a two month period. The destructive fire is the second largest fire in state history and has destroyed hundreds of structures. It is currently 94 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)