Dixie Fire, PG&E, and the US Forest Service

Mike Archer has this in his Wildfire News of the Day today:

CAL FIRE sent along a press release which announced that investigators determined that Pacific Gas & Electric was responsible for the Dixie Fire, which burned 963,309 acres, destroyed 1,329 structures and damaged 95 additional structures in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama counties after it started last July.
CAL FIRE Investigators Determine Cause of the Dixie Fire https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KOTmTdyMl-T1NGwF2s890NjHBFFyTWgu/view?usp=sharing

The Cal Fire PR says, “After a meticulous and thorough investigation, CAL FIRE has determined that the Dixie Fire was caused by
a tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) located west
of Cresta Dam.”

Looking at Google Maps, the power lines in question appear to be on the Plumas National Forest. If so, could the USFS be held liable? Or is it all on PG&E?


8 thoughts on “Dixie Fire, PG&E, and the US Forest Service”

  1. Steve, you’ve posed the question of this century. PG&E serves the public, as does the FS, so aren’t we all responsible? If we blame PG&E for not adequately maintaining the transmission lines, and make them pay, they will probably go broke, causing more crisis in our infrastructure. If we blame the FS, it will just add to the natural resource management crisis that exists in the US today. Time for all of us, as Atny Gen Merritt Garrland just said, to step up and be responsible, before we don’t have a country anymore, instead of trying to blame someone for our problems.

      • The federal government is generally immune from liability caused by the private use of national forests. If the private permittee’s use damages the national forests, it is liable for those costs. 43 USC 1764(h).

        PGE is a private corporation. It has stockholders who invest to make a profit. Maintenance is a cost of doing business, which decreases profit. Thus, it should come as no surprise that PGE is stingy when it comes to maintenance. It is paying the piper now.

        • Thanks, Andy. I figured the USFS would not be liable. PG&E is a corporation, but one that is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

  2. Yup, it seems like a bit of a philosophical problem. Any punitive damages will just come out of the pockets of ratepayers or taxpayers.
    On the other hand, perhaps a knowledgeable group could come up with required practices and monitor and update them. Perhaps that is what the regulatory commission is supposed to do?

  3. So, anyone who has worked special uses knows how stringent the tenets of permitting entail. Most often, unless it is a high “KVA” line, the ability to truly “safen” a transmission line is NOT going to happen! It would, however, be appropriate to clear the transmission ROW of any tree that might strike the line. Then, if we abide by the FS’s own safety standard of 2 1/2 times the tallest tree, we enter into a runway effect on the landscape (lateral attribute). Is that what “we” want?

    Wil this finally make the case to widen ROW’s for fire safety? I can hear the public scream from my perch in the Arkansas hills! I doubt much will change, hadn’t yet and we’ve been facing transmission line fire starts since power came to rural America.

    One thing is for certain, many “eyes” will be watching this unfold….

  4. Utilities are not your friends.

    Recall that in 2009 Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy was responsible for a gas explosion in Bozeman, Montana that destroyed several businesses and killed one person.

    Last year the company’s power line started a wildfire that leveled Denton, Montana and caused a devastating decrease in the Madison River flow that killed native trout due to its negligence at the Hebgen Dam. NorthWestern Energy is expected to be sued once again for its undying commitment to moral hazard.

    The average cost of a household photovoltaic system has dropped below $3/watt or less than $12,810 before tax credits are factored in and leaving the grid has never been easier so anyone who can afford to it should do it now.

    Don’t tie your system to the grid but if you use it as a backup keep your electricity completely invisible to the utility that reads your meter. Microgrid technologies are destined to encourage self-reliance, enhance tribal sovereignty, free communities from electric monopolies and net-metering only gives control back to utilities enabled by moral hazard.

  5. I assume the liability issue in court will be whether the utility was negligent in failing to take some action that would have prevented the fire, which is basically a reasonable standard of care, which can be affected by standards and criteria set by oversight bodies. I assume compliance with permit terms would be a consideration. If a reasonable standard of care still does not eliminate all fires, then that part of the cost should be considered a real cost of energy and paid by the users (which might help shift demand to energy sources that don’t have that cost).


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