Ken Hale: No spark, no fire | TheUnion.com

Ken Hale: No spark, no fire

Other Voices
Ken Hale

I don’t know where to begin. PG&E doesn’t spend enough money on vegetation management and maintenance as required by law to maintain in a safe and reliable power grid.

Now this corporation is going to “turn the power off for our safety.”

I have an idea. Trim the trees, including removal of any that create a hazard to the powerlines. These would be dead or dying trees, or trees that are leaning toward the lines. PG&E is spending millions to convince everyone in California that all these fires are caused by climate change. Sorry folks, climate change does not start fires. Powerlines in contact with vegetation does. If there is no spark, there is no fire, regardless of the weather.

We humans are responsible for putting too much carbon into the atmosphere and our weather is changing. Cal Fire, the outfit I spent 40 years with, diligently put all fires out for at least the last century. Fires burn hotter and longer than they ever have before due to the weather and the huge understory we have created by vigorously extinguishing wildfires. It would seem that PG&E would want to trim even more trees.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, at least as far as corporate headquarters is concerned. The businesspeople in charge of PG&E have a long history of putting profit before public safety. During the investigation of the Trauner Fire that PG&E caused in Rough and Ready, we uncovered email strings that straight out said that it was less expensive to pay the fines than to trim the trees. That was in 1994. The court case that sprang from the Trauner Fire (Nevada County v. PG&E), resulted in more than 700 criminal convictions for failure to maintain its system in a safe and reliable fashion as required by law. In the research I’ve done since then, PG&E has not changed much in the last 25 years.

In 2011, PG&E instituted a program called “March to a Million.” The number referred to the number of trees they were going to trim each year. This program sounds pretty good until one digs a bit deeper. The march was a reduction to a million trees a year from about 1.7 million that had been trimmed in 2007. The money from tree trimming was shifted to electrical reliability in cities leaving places like the Sierra with far fewer trees trimmed than the company had historically done. We who live in those rural areas were about to pay dearly for this shift in funds.

According to PG&E’s own records, 1% of the estimated 55,000,000 trees in their system are endangering powerlines in violation of the law. That means there are 550,000 trees that require immediate attention to keep the public safe. Again, according to PG&E’s own statement, they are just fine with 550,000 trees close to powerlines, or in direct contact with them.

In September of 2010, PG&E’s gas line in San Bruno blew up killing eight people. The corporation was found to be negligent in the extreme due to very poor maintenance and record keeping. In 2012, the California Public Utilities Commission found that PG&E had diverted more than $100 million from safety and given the money to themselves in the form of executive bonuses. In 2014, PG&E was charged in Federal Court with obstruction of justice and of lying to the NTSB during court proceedings. The result of this trial was conviction on six felony counts. No one went to jail for the felonies even though there were deaths involved. From 2008 to 2010, PG&E paid no corporate income tax on $4,850,000,000 in profits from all of us rate payers, yet this company cannot afford to maintain its system nor keep vegetation away from its powerlines. In addition, this company received more than $1,000,000,000 in tax credits for the same period.

CPUC records show a long-term pattern of profit over safety. This includes power pole replacement that is decades behind schedule from insufficient funding. The same applies to overhead powerlines, transformers, insulators, and most other physical assets belonging to PG&E. In 2014, PG&E instituted a “new” program in vegetation management called “Just in Time” tree trimming. The aim was not to trim the trees in a coherent and systematic fashion but to get to trees in contact with powerlines just before they ignited fires. By 2015, the date of Butte Fire in Amador County, PG&E was far behind on maintenance and tree trimming. A tree leaning toward the powerline finally fell into them, even though it had been identified as a hazard and should have been removed. This fire charred 70,868 acres, burned 818 structures to the ground, and incinerated two people.

On April 25, 2017, the CPUC issued a citation to PG&E for “failing to maintain its 12kv overhead conductors safely and properly.” In October 2017, winds picked up in the Wine Country. These winds were strong according to remote automated weather station (RAWS) data from the area but were well within parameters set by the CPUC that require powerline to not make contact with each other or vegetation during wind events. Instead, tree branches came in direct contact with distribution lines, lines came off power poles, and at least one aging power pole failed. In a period of about three hours, nine major fires were ignited. In the next three weeks, hundreds of thousands of acres were consumed, 21 people were incinerated, and 2,079 houses burned down, all because PG&E failed to trim the trees and maintain their system as required by law.

In November of 2018, the Camp Fire took off in the deep canyon just below Paradise. By the time the flames hit the ridge just east of Paradise, flame lengths were certainly well over two hundred feet tall. The Cal Fire investigation proved that a transmission wire had broken a support ring on a tower that was built in 1919. Once again, lack of maintenance is the chief suspect.

I want to state here that I completely support PG&E linemen and maintenance workers of all types. They are the folks who were out on the line with me when I was fighting fire. They were risking their lives as much as I was, and I have always respected those PG&E personnel. It is PG&E management that is culpable.

Now PG&E has permission from the CPUC to turn the power off if weather conditions are so severe that lives are in danger. At the same time, PG&E has placed before the CPUC a proposal to increase its profit to 16% up from about 11% they currently make all of us pay. They say it is to attract investors. Bah! It is to have rate payers cover all the damage they have wreaked in the last decade starting with San Bruno. The CPUC is considering this proposal.

I have a counter proposal.

Maybe PG&E should not be allowed anything over a 3% profit until all the trees are trimmed, hazard trees removed, aged poles replaced, transformers upgraded, and aging powerlines replaced. The extra money from redirected profit can pay for the backlog until it is gone, and we are all safe. This is a backlog that PG&E has created over the last 30 years. They need to pay for it, not us.

Allowing 16% profit for this company would be an obscene insult to all the people the PG&E has burned to death.

We need to make them trim the trees. No spark, no fire!

Ken Hale, Cal Fire, Retired, was chief investigator for Nevada County v. PG&E.


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