Editor’s note: This has been excerpted with permission from the Pacific Research Institute. To read the entire report, click here.
Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, electrical transmission lines in the Pulga area of Butte County owned by Pacific Gas and Electric started what became known as the Camp Fire.
“The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported in May 2019 after its investigation found PG&E at fault for the fire.
A second ignition site “determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E … was consumed by the original fire.”
The Camp Fire, possibly ignited by a faulty C-hook, burned through 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and killed 86 people. It was the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California history, taking more than twice the number of lives as the next deadliest fire in the state, the Griffith Park fire of 1933, which killed 29.
PG&E, responsible for at least 1,500 fires since 2014, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019, as it reportedly had “no choice … given the flood of lawsuits and wildfire liabilities it estimates could be up to $30 billion.” About six months later, it agreed to pay $1 billion in compensation to “more than a dozen California cities, counties and agencies for losses resulting from deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment.”
In September 2019, the utility agreed to pay an $11 billion insurance settlement to resolve insurance claims over the Camp Fire and the wine country fires of 2017. It’s possible prosecutors will eventually file criminal charges against the utility and its executives for their role in the fire.
Roughly one month later, PG&E began a series of “public safety power shutoffs” to reduce the risk of wildfires. “Given the continued and growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires, and as an additional precautionary measure following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires,” the utility announced, “we are expanding and enhancing our Community Wildfire Safety Program to further reduce wildfire risks and help keep our customers and the communities we serve safe.
“This includes expanding our Public Safety Power Shutoff program beginning with the 2019 wildfire season to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas — both distribution and transmission.” The power outages that began on the morning of October 9 caused roughly 2 million people to lose their power at its peak.
The blackouts continued throughout the month. By October 26, the power to roughly 2.8 million customers was being turned off in what was called “the state’s largest — and potentially longest — deliberate blackout ever.”
Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that “never before in California history have more than 2 million people gone five days without electrical power because of the intentional safety policy of a utility.” The blackouts continued throughout the month. By October 26, the power to roughly 2.8 million customers was being turned off.
PG&E began rolling blackouts the afternoon of Friday, October 25, “and by Sunday evening the utility had cut current to 940,000 homes and businesses, affecting more than 2 million people, with one more phase to come in Fresno and Madera counties.” Despite the public safety power shutoffs, the wildfires reached the point by October 27 that Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. It was effective across the entire state.
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