Is PG&E The Scape Goat? Part 1.

Is PG&E The Scape Goat? Part 1.

Addressing this question poses the risk of oversimplification. However, these two articles will address some of the facts ignored  by the media.

Devastating wildfires have been plaguing California for the past year or two. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

PG&E’s equipment reportedly caused this fire. Other fires have also been reportedly started by PG&E equipment.

As a result, PG&E has had to declare bankruptcy.

This fire, and other fires for which PG&E is reportedly responsible, could just as well have been started by lightning or the carelessness of people because of the tinder-dry forests.

California law holds PG&E responsible for these fires merely because their equipment was involved even if other factors were the root cause. A tree or branch that falls across power lines can cause sparking that can ignite a fire. An earthquake can result in power lines dancing around and crossing each other creating a short circuit that can also cause sparking and ignite a fire.

California is also no stranger to drought conditions or the Santa Ana and Diablo Winds that drive these fires once they have started.

Depiction of Santa Ana Winds

The following is a quotation from California’s Most Significant Droughts, published by the California Department of Water resources:

“California’s most significant historical droughts of state-wide scope were those with the longest duration or driest hydrology – the six-year drought of 1929-34, the two-year drought of 1976-77, and the six-year event of 1987-92.”

In addition, there have been recent droughts in 2007-09 and 2012-14. 

It’s clear California had severe droughts in the last century and that droughts aren’t a new phenomena. Paleontological data show that California has had severe droughts dating back a thousand or more years while CO2 levels were constant at 280 ppm.

What’s changed is the way California politicians have managed the forests.

Quoting from the Wall Street Journal article, Revolutionary California, by Jenkins Jr.:

“A generation of ill-judged environmental activism has all but ended forest management in favor of letting dead trees and underbrush build up because it’s more ‘natural’.”

Referring to the California report, the three droughts during the 1900s were, 1929-34, 1976-77 and 1987-92.

The 29-34 drought was when the population was around 5 million, and the infrastructure was new and far less extensive than today. For these reasons the 23-29, six year drought isn’t relevant to today’s situation where there is a larger population, some of it living in or near forested areas, while the infrastructure then was newer.

However, it does show that a severe drought existed nearly 100 years ago, which makes suspect the claim that climate change is the cause of the recent wildfires.

The more recent droughts, 76-77 and 87-92, are more relevant, larger population and older infrastructure, and during these droughts the wildfires were less devastating.

The Wall Street Journal also did an evaluation of PG&E’s transmission lines, and concluded that they “Heighten California’s Fire Risk.” The article said:

“When the Journal looked at some of PG& E’s equipment near Paradise in August, many towers appeared rusty, showing their age.”


“PG& E operates nearly 40 hydroelectric facilities built before 1950. Many of the associated electric lines and towers are just as old.”

The inference of the WSJ evaluation was that the PG&E system was old and in need of repair.

Unfortunately, that conclusion can be reached about virtually every major utility in the United States. Age and rusty towers by themselves are not necessarily an indication of risk or bad maintenance practices.

For example, here is a picture of a badly rusted transformer in Illinois.

Whether PG&E performance is worse than other utilities can be debated. It’s also true that California poses a riskier environment which may require more aggressive maintenance procedures, in which case the California government should have required more aggressive trimming and clearing requirements and allowed higher rates to cover the added costs.

The fact remains, there have been periods of severe drought in California during the recent past, 76-77 and 87-92, when there were a large number of wildfires, (see next figure) but fewer were devastating while PG&Es equipment was also old.

Importantly, there is a recent trend where the number of wildfires have declined, but the size and severity has increased.

Th above chart shows a recent decline in the number of wildfires, in Calfire and USFS jurisdictions, taken from, Different historical fire–climate patterns in California, a study by Jon E. Keeley and Alexandra D. Syphard.

While the number of wildfires have trended down, the size has trended up.

Chart showing an increase in acres burned, from J. Keeley, author of study.

This trend would be consistent with an increase in dead trees and underbrush from a government policy of leaving forests natural.

This would indicate that the California government was responsible for the increase in large wildfires.

This brings us to the issue of tree trimming and brush clearance.

See Part Two, this coming Friday, for details about trimming and clearing of brush, and the conclusion establishing responsibility.

. . .




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6 Replies to “Is PG&E The Scape Goat? Part 1.”

  1. PG&E customers have two other options:
    1) Pay much higher power rates to harden the transmission lines.
    2) Have no available and reliable power.
    Probably they won’t like them either.

    • Thanks for your comment.The State can take over the company, but that will only make things worse. Or the state could start to clean away dead trees and brush, but that will take time.

  2. As a power lines company engineer from New Zealand, I find your articles well balanced and factual. Thanks for what you’re doing here Donn. BTW, I’m probably about the same age as PGE’s old lines and need more maintenance now too.

    • I greatly appreciate your comments.
      I have had the good fortune of spending a month in New Zealand traveling both islands. I’m somewhat familiar with New Zealand’s electrical grid and its large use of hydropower.