When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California
A federal judge ordered PG&E’s board of directors Tuesday to visit Paradise to better understand the devastation the utility caused when its equipment failed and apparently sparked last November’s Camp Fire.
The order by U.S. District Judge William Alsup is the latest in a series of conditions he’s imposed on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over its failure to prevent major wildfires the past two years. Alsup got involved in PG&E’s fire safety practices because he’s overseeing the utility’s criminal probation for the fatal 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
PG&E said it welcomed Alsup’s directive to send its directors to Paradise, where 85 people died and nearly 90 percent of the homes were destroyed. Although the investigation is ongoing, the company has already said it believes its equipment started the fire.
The utility — which filed for bankruptcy in January under the weight of expected wildfire liabilities — also said its 14 board members will meet with San Bruno officials.
“The judge’s sentence is a welcome opportunity for our new board to engage fully with Paradise and the City of San Bruno,” the company said in a prepared statement. “PG&E’s new board members will meet with representatives from those communities and witness the rebuild and recovery work first hand.”
It wasn’t immediately clear when tour will take place. The utility’s directors will see a town dominated by debris, ruined buildings and other reminders of the most destructive wildfire in California history. Most of the population of 26,000 remains dispersed throughout Northern California and beyond.
Under pressure to improve public safety, PG&E overhauled its board of directors last month, adding prominent executives such as Nora Mead Brownell, a former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It also named a new CEO — Bill Johnson, who had run the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Earlier this year, angered by PG&E’s safety record, Alsup threatened to order the utility to implement a stringent safety plan this summer involving inspections of all 100,000 miles of its power lines, a huge increase in its tree-trimming program, and major blackouts during high winds or other dangerous conditions.
PG&E complained that Alsup’s program would cost $75 billion to implement. It then filed its own safety plan with the state Public Utilities Commission that’s essentially a scaled-down version of what Alsup was contemplating.
The judge agreed to PG&E’s plan, but with an additional condition: He said PG&E can’t resume paying shareholder dividends, to make sure it has the “sufficient resources, financial and personnel” to carry out its plan.