Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has discontinued its hazardous tree monitoring program, raising alarms among local and state officials about public safety in Plumas County and neighboring areas at risk of wildfire.
Two years after a tree fell on a PG&E power line and started the Dixie fire, the utility company announced that it will no longer conduct inspections of potentially hazardous trees, a program known as Enhanced Vegetation Management.
Instead, it will provide additional patrols of the electrical circuits of highest risk for wildfire, identifying them through “predictive and risk modeling,” according to a report issued by the monitor overseeing PG&E’s compliance with the April 2022 settlement of PG&E’s criminal liability for the Dixie fire.
PG&E realized it could not identify every tree posing a potential risk, company spokesmen Matt Nauman said in a written response. “We realized we needed to evolve to engineered controls,” he said.
The new process involves more in-depth “risk modeling,” allowing technicians to target problems more effectively, said Nauman. It will work in conjunction with automatic powerline shutoffs, known as Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS), currently in place.
The now discontinued hazard tree program has been successful, said Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister. Inspectors found nine times as many problem trees as previous systems designed to identify vegetation threatening to power lines. While the new program may prove to be beneficial, the change is disturbing, he said.
Hollister used an analogy to explain: “If I’m catching fish in this part of the stream, there’s no reason for me to move to another part of the stream. I should stay here till I stop catching fish,” said Hollister, an avid angler.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he is also skeptical, as are the district attorneys of Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties, all involved in the stipulated settlement with PG&E filed on April 11, 2022.
“PG&E is saying they can spend their money more efficiently and better on other ways of preventing wildfires,” Ramsey said. “All it takes is one tree that they’ve missed to start another Dixie.”
“All it takes is one tree that they’ve missed to start another Dixie.”Mike Ramsey, Butte County District Attorney
Officials with the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, regulated by the California Public Utility Commission, have been notified and are concerned about the discontinued program, he said. “PGE is going to have to better justify what we referenced as a regression from their efforts on vegetation management,” Ramsey said.
The discontinued tree monitoring program identified 385,428 trees with the potential to contribute to a wildfire. That’s nine times as many hazardous trees as found by the previous program, said Hollister.
PG&E plans to “mitigate” the 385,428 known marked trees over the course of nine years, Nauman said.
Monitor assesses compliance
The April 2022 settlement appointed a monitor to assess PG&E’s compliance with its various commitments related to recovery from the 2021 Dixie Fire. Among them are jobs and training, inspection of electrical transmission and distribution line structures, and undergrounding power lines.
PG&E reported it had moved 115.9 miles of electric distribution lines underground by the end of 2022. The company plans eventually to underground 10,000 miles of line, the largest effort of its kind in the U.S, Nauman said.
Hollister said one of the most successful programs created under the settlement with the five counties involves automatically shutting off electricity when a power line has been disturbed. Under EPSS, the utility company has installed equipment to automatically halt power on 4,603 miles of electric distribution lines.
Ramsey said that the occasional and unexpected blackouts are “a pain in the ass, but it’s better than a wildfire.”
“Unexpected blackouts are ‘a pain in the ass, but it’s better than a wildfire.'”Mike Ramsey, Butte County District Attorney
The appointment of an independent Monitor is itself one of the most crucial components of the resolution of the criminal investigation, said Hollister. It assures that compliance continues and meets the terms of the agreement “so our region is never again beset by PG&E-started tragedies such as the Camp and Dixie fires,” he said.
The cost of the Monitor is paid completely by PG&E and cannot be passed on to the ratepayers, according to the settlement agreement.
The Dixie fire started July 13 when a Douglas fir fell onto the Bucks Creek overhead distribution line near Pulga. PG&E reported its responsibility for the fire on July 18 after flames were already roaring up the Feather River Canyon. The fire destroyed most of the communities of Indian Falls, Greenville, Canyon Dam and Warner Valley. The largest single fire in California, Dixie burned 961,780 acres in federal, state and private lands, cutting a 90-mile linear swath from the Feather River Canyon to Hat Creek north of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
In addition to programs monitoring hazardous trees and automatic electricity shut offs, the April 2022 settlement includes expediting claims made against PG&E. Plumas County residents have received $46,600,000 as of April 2023, Hollister said. PG&E has made an additional $17,000,000 in payments to Plumas County organizations.