Even as the Dixie Fire continues to burn, a federal judge in San Francisco is seeking to determine what role, if any, PG&E played in starting it.

At a hearing this week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup heard testimony from a PG&E utility lineman who, on July 13, observed two blown fuses on a powerline near where the fire started. He also saw a tree leaning on the line.

The still active Dixie Fire, one of the most destructive in California history, has burned nearly a million acres in five counties, destroying 1,329 structures and damaging another 95, according to Cal Fire.

As of Wednesday, the fire was 75 percent contained.

The judge called the hearing to question the lineman about the fire’s origins.

According to the recitation of events PG&E filed before the hearing, at 6:48 a.m. on July 13, 2021, there was a brief power surge on Bucks Creek line 1101 and a loss of power at Cresta Dam in Plumas County.

By 9:07 a.m., after some back and forth among PG&E’s control center, field center and a roving field operator, the control center was aware that the roving operator “had concluded the trouble was on the Bucks Creek 1101 Line.”

PG&E then created a priority 1 tag, or a “non-emergency field order.” According to PG&E, a priority 1 tag is to be addressed the same day.

The lineman received the tag at about 10:47 a.m. and while he got underway in a few minutes, it took hours to reach the dam. Once he got there he could see with binoculars that there was a problem with the fuses on the line.

He headed for the pole but could not get to the site for several hours due to difficult back country road conditions and a county work crew allegedly blocking access to a bridge.

The lineman did not reach the pole where the fuses were located until 4:40 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the incident.

The powerline remained energized while the lineman traveled to the site.

One man and a fire extinguisher

When he arrived, the lineman saw two blown fuses and one that appeared operative. However, it was not until he went up in his bucket that he was able to see the ground below the power line. At that time, he saw a Douglas fir tree leaning on the line and a fire in an oval patch on the ground, roughly 600 to 800 square feet in size.

The lineman called for help and while he waited he attempted to put out the fire himself.

According to his declaration, he slid 60 to 80 feet downhill with a fire extinguisher and unsuccessfully attempted to put the fire out. He then climbed back to the truck and got a pressurized water extinguisher and tried again to put out the fire. When that failed, he tried to dig a fire break.

Cal Fire ground crews arrived at around 7 p.m. and took over.

At the hearing, Judge Alsup wanted to know why the line had not been de-energized earlier, at least by the time the lineman saw the fuse problem through his binoculars. He wanted to know the names of the PG&E employees involved in the decision not to de-energize the line and directed PG&E to provide that information by this Friday at noon.

A map shows the area of the Sierra Nevada foothills affected by the Dixie Fire, which has been active for more than two months and has burned close to 1 million acres. (Image courtesy of Cal Fire)

The hearing arose in connection with the probation imposed on PG&E following its 2016 criminal conviction for its role in a deadly San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

A corporation cannot be imprisoned, but PG&E was sentenced to “the most severe fine possible” and the longest period of probation allowed — five years. Among the original conditions of probation was the requirement that PG&E not violate any state or federal law.

That ushered in what the judge called in an earlier order “a stunning chapter in California history.” According to a tally he made before this fire season, since probation was first imposed, “PG&E has ignited 20 or more wildfires in California, killing at least 111 individuals, destroying at least 22,627 structures, and burning half a million acres.”

Under Judge Alsup’s supervision, there have been numerous hearings on the role that PG&E’s equipment and vegetation management practices have had in sparking destructive wildfires.

In earlier hearings, the judge excoriated the company’s history of diverting corporate funds from the safe maintenance of its infrastructure to “enlarge dividends, bonuses, and political contributions.”

A ‘recipe for danger’

Particularly disturbing to the judge, has been PG&E’s decade-long failure to fully comply with California law that requires it to clear trees and vegetation near its power distribution lines. The consequence has been that in times of dry and windy conditions, trees have blown onto the lines sparking wildfires in the grass below.

On several occasions, Alsup has imposed additional conditions of probation to force PG&E to reduce the risk of wildfires caused by its equipment. Most recently the judge has sparred with PG&E on the circumstances when PG&E must implement “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” to pre-emptively de-energize lines determined to be at high risk of sparking fires in dry, windy conditions.

At a hearing before the beginning of the 2021 fire season, the judge said that in his opinion the rules for determining when to implement power shutoffs have become “a matter of life and death.”

While the issue at the hearing did not involve a pre-emptive power shut off — such as the Public Safety Power Shutoff — it raised the related question of when PG&E should cut off power on a line when there is a sign that there is a problem, but before the full scope of the problem is known.

Catherine Kissee-Sandoval, an attorney representing two PG&E customers who have frequently appeared in the matter as “friends of the court,” said that in situations like this PG&E’s inadequate technology and cumbersome decision-making processes are a “recipe for danger.”

The court is expected to hold a further hearing in the matter after PG&E provides the requested information.

Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist. He practiced law in Philadelphia for more than 35 years, representing private and governmental clients in commercial litigation and insolvency proceedings. Joe served as City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia under Mayor Ed Rendell and from 2009 to 2013 was one of five members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission with responsibility for managing the city’s 250 public schools. He moved to San Francisco in 2011 and began writing fiction and pursuing a lifelong interest in editorial cartooning. Joe earned a Master’s in Journalism from Stanford University in 2020. He covers Legal Affairs and writes long form Investigative stories. His occasional cartooning can be seen in Bay Area Sketchbook. Joe encourages readers to email him story ideas and leads at joe.dworetzky@baycitynews.com.