Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced on Monday that they received a subpoena from the U.S. attorney’s office requesting Dixie Fire-related documents. The utility said, in Monday’s regulatory filing, that they received the subpoena on October 7 and expected to lose at least $1.15 billion in connection with the fire.
The Dixie Fire, which ignited on July 13, 2021, burned 963,309 acres of land in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties, destroyed 1,329 structures and killed one person before being fully contained on October 25.
The cause of the Dixie Fire is also under investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Butte County district attorney’s office and other agencies. However, PG&E has admitted that their troubleman found two blown fuses, a tree leaning against PG&E power lines and a ground fire below the tree on the day the Dixie Fire ignited. A PG&E worker told one of the utility’s dispatchers, “There’s a tree on a line that started a fire,” and when asked if he was sure, said, “Correct. No, that started it… it fell, fell into the line.”
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, on August 18, asked PG&E questions which hinted that Alsup may have suspected that the PG&E troubleman started the fire himself. Alsup said it “does not add up” that PG&E recorded a line disruption at 6:48 on July 13, yet when the troubleman observed the fire after 4:40 PM it had only grown to 600-800 square feet in size. Alsup stated that no one saw the fire until the troubleman’s arrival, asking if the troubleman attempted to replace a fuse while the tree was still in contact with the lines and the lines still had a good load, possibly leading to arcing and a fire.
PG&E has admitted that it may end up being liable for multiple damages in connection with the Dixie Fire, including damaged or destroyed structures and trees, business interruptions, property damage, evacuation and fire suppression costs, damage to forest or national park lands, and medical expenses.
PG&E may end up being held liable for Dixie Fire-related damages under numerous California laws, including:
- California Public Resources Code § 4293 mandates that utilities keep at least four feet of clearance between vegetation and power lines of the type involved in the Dixie Fire.
- Public Utilities Code § 2106 states that utilities are liable for any damages resulting from their violation of the law.
- California Health & Safety Code § 13007 holds anyone who negligently lets a fire escape onto someone else’s property liable for any damage to that property.
- Article 1, § 19 of the California Constitution states that just compensation must be paid to the owner of private property when it is damaged for public use. California courts have ruled that this applies to fires started by utilities. This concept is known as inverse condemnation.
PG&E said they’re aware of around 10 Dixie Fire lawsuits filed on behalf of 676 plaintiffs, noting that additional lawsuits are probable. PG&E said the lawsuits allege that the utility’s “alleged failure to properly maintain, inspect and de-energize their distribution lines was the cause of the 2021 Dixie Fire.”
The power line suspected to have started the Dixie Fire was scheduled to be buried underground for safety reasons, but the work was not done at the time of the Dixie Fire’s ignition.
PG&E said they expect to recover fire costs from the California Wildfire Fund, insurance and customers.
The Dixie Fire is just the latest in a string of costly California wildfires which PG&E was responsible for or is suspected of being responsible for.
PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 deaths resulting from the Camp Fire, which burned 153,336 acres of land in Butte County and destroyed 18,804 buildings in November 2018. Cal Fire said the fire was started by PG&E’s power lines.
PG&E pleaded not guilty to 33 Kincade Fire-related criminal charges in October. The Kincade Fire burned 77,758 acres of land in Sonoma County in 2019, destroying 374 buildings. Cal Fire determined the fire was caused by PG&E’s power lines.