Investigators are still trying to find the source of the deadly wildfires in California, and they may end up looking into a major utility company.
The fires raging across California’s wine country (Napa and Sonoma Counties) have so far killed 29 people and displaced thousands of others this week, with hundreds of people in the area still unaccounted for. The latest spate of fires is the deadliest on record, with the death toll currently matching the number of people killed in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park fire of 1933, according to the Washington Post. More deaths are likely to be reported, as cadaver dogs are being used to sift through the ashes of thousands of homes. The culprit behind these deadly fires may not be a person, but a company.
A lineman for the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) who anonymously spoke to local media said he believed the cause of the wildfires is downed power lines and exploding transformers in the area that set off sparks and ignited dry brush. A PG&E spokesman made a similar statement to the San Jose Mercury News, saying that high winds in the area may have caused overgrown branches to fall on power lines, leading to small fires that quickly spread due to dry conditions. PG&E is required by state law to cut back branches and growth that may interfere with power lines.
The Mercury News reported that this would not be the first time the power company’s failure to perform critical routine maintenance has caused deadly wildfires:
In April, the state Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the Butte Fire in Amador County in September 2015. That fire burned for 22 days, killing two people, destroying 549 homes and charring 70,868 acres.
CalFire announced last year that it will seek to force PG&E to pay $90 million in firefighting costs. More than 1,000 lawsuits and claims are still pending against the utility.
In 1994, PG&E was found guilty of 739 counts of negligence and fined nearly $30 million by state regulators when trees touched its high-voltage wires in Nevada County in the Sierra foothills, sparking a fire near the town of Rough and Ready that destroyed 12 homes and a 19th century schoolhouse. Afterward, prosecutors found that PG&E had diverted nearly $80 million from its tree-cutting programs into profits.
The fact that the company appears to have not done its due diligence of cutting back problematic growth is especially bad optics, considering PG&E has already enjoyed an incredibly profitable year due to recent increases on ratepayers. The Mercury News reported in July that corporate profits for PG&E nearly doubled in the second quarter of 2017, following a round of rate increases in January. PG&E customers began paying, on average, 11.5 percent more for gas and electric services in January 2017 compared to January 2016. The company is currently seeking a new wave of rate increases beginning in January of 2018.
State senator Jerry Hill, whose district includes the affected area, promised to call for the dissolution of PG&E as a private company if it turns out corporate negligence was the cause of this week’s destructive fires and form a publicly owned utility company in its place.
Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.