PG&E announces $13.5-billion settlement for devastating Northern California wildfires

By Howard Blume

Los Angeles Times

Pacific Gas & Electric on Friday announced a $13.5-billion settlement for a series of Northern California fires that destroyed thousands of homes and killed scores.

The settlement covers some of the state’s worst fires, including the 2017 wine country blazes and the fire that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.

The move comes as the utility faces an uncertain future, after its power lines were determined to be involved in several of the state’s recent destructive fires.

“We want to help our customers, our neighbors and our friends in those impacted areas recover and rebuild after these tragic wildfires,” Chief Executive Bill Johnson said in a statement.

The utility has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but is trying to remain financially viable and the settlement is a step in that direction, the utility’s top official said.

“With this important milestone now accomplished, we are focused on emerging from Chapter 11 as the utility of the future that our customers and communities expect and deserve,” Johnson said.

Transmission equipment operated by PG&E has been widely blamed for some of the state’s most destructive and deadly wildfires in recent years, and the utility has not contested damning findings of recent investigations.

The Camp fire in 2018, which raced through Paradise, killed 86 people and destroyed more than 13,900 homes.

The California Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded that poorly maintained PG&E equipment sparked the blaze.

The commission report noted that for years, PG&E failed to do climbing inspections of a century-old tower that malfunctioned, causing sparks where the fire originated. Investigators said there was “visible wear” on the arms of a tower linked to the blaze, but that PG&E crews had not climbed the tower since at least 2001.

Such an inspection could have identified problems with a small metal hook that was supposed to hold up a transmission line and insulator on the tower, and “its timely replacement could have prevented the ignition of the Camp fire,” investigators said.

The omission of climbing inspections on the failed tower since 2001 “is a violation of PG&E’s own policy requiring climbing inspections on towers where recurring problems exist,” investigators wrote.

Other fires covered in the settlement are the 2017 Tubbs fire, the 2015 Butte fire and 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.

This new agreement is the utility’s third major recent settlement. PG&E already has agreed to pay $1 billion to cities, counties and other public entities, and $11 billion to insurance companies and other entities that have already paid claims relating to the 2017 and 2018 wildfires.