Northern California wildfires scorch more than 158,000 acres

As a series of wildfires — including the state’s first “megafire” of the season — continue to scorch more than 158,000 acres of bone dry forest landscape in Northern California, PG&E revealed that its equipment may have helped spark a growing blaze roaring through remote terrain in Butte County.

In a state regulatory filing late Sunday, PG&E said that state fire investigators collected the utility company’s equipment located in the area where the Dixie Fire ignited in the rugged Feather River Canyon.

“PG&E submits this report in an abundance of caution given CAL FIRE’s collection of PG&E facilities in connection with its investigation,” PG&E stated in its filing with the state Public Utilities Commission.

The latest revelation is yet another black eye for the embattled utility whose equipment has been linked to a series of lethal wildfires in Northern California in recent years.

The Dixie Fire, which broke out earlier in July, had consumed more than 30,000 acres in Butte County as of Monday morning and remained 15% contained. The fire expanded by more than 11,000 acres overnight, jumping a section of Highway 70 and threatening more than 800 structures, according to Cal Fire.

“Yesterday was a pretty active day at the fire. We had two large plumes and the fire was moving in two different directions,” Cal Fire incident commander Tony Brownell said in a briefing Monday morning. “It’s a very challenging fire because of the terrain and the fuels, but we are making progress.”

On the morning of July 13, PG&E became aware of a power failure at its Crest Dam facility off Highway 70 in Butte County and dispatched a crew to investigate, PG&E stated in its filing with the PUC.

Later that afternoon, a PG&E worker arrived at the site of the power failure and found two blown fuses and “what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree” leaning against the company’s electrical equipment. The employee then noticed a fire on the ground near the base of the tree, prompting him to call 911, PG&E said in its report.

With an hour of PG&E’s call, Cal Fire reportedly began dropping fire retardant and water on the flames.

Denny Boyles, a spokesperson for PG&E, said Monday that the information PG&E submitted is “preliminary” and was submitted “in an abundance of caution.”

“PG&E is cooperating with CAL FIRE’s investigation,” he wrote in an email to this news organization.

Utilities are required to file a report within two to four hours when serious electrical incidents occur, but PG&E waited five days after the employee noted the issue to report it to the state regulatory agency. Boyles said in an email Monday that because Cal Fire did not collect the equipment until Sunday, PG&E is under the assumption that it met its 4-hour weekend requirement when it filed the report later that night.

PG&E equipment has been blamed for a string of devastating fires in recent years, including the state’s deadliest fire — the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County — not far from where the Dixie Fire is burning. The utility company in May agreed to pay more than $43 million to 10 cities and counties to resolve civil claims related to the 2019 Kincade Fire and the 2020 Zogg Fire, which state officials determined were both caused by PG&E equipment.

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