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Can Pacific Gas and Electric operate without starting wildfires?


The nation's biggest power utility faces the possibility of criminal charges again for starting a devastating wildfire. California investigators say a Pacific Gas and Electric power line sparked a massive fire last summer, leading many to ask whether the company can ever operate safely. Dan Brekke of member station KQED reports.

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Mike Ramsey is district attorney in Northern California's Butte County. On a recent morning, he was getting ready to turn over a key piece of evidence from the highest-profile homicide case he's ever handled.

MIKE RAMSEY: This is what we've been referring to as kind of the killer hook.

BREKKE: He's describing a fractured piece of steel that fits in the palm of his hand. Once it helped support a high-voltage Pacific Gas and Electric power line near the town of Paradise.

RAMSEY: This hook hung in the air for what we believe was some 98 years.

BREKKE: When the hook snapped in late 2018, it sparked a fire that nearly wiped out Paradise and was the deadliest in state history. The hook was a centerpiece of Ramsey's case against PG&E, which pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. And now the district attorney has handed it over for display at the Gold Nugget History Museum in Paradise.

But PG&E's troubles are not history. The company faces criminal charges for fires in 2019 and 2020, and Ramsey is weighing whether PG&E should be prosecuted for last year's Dixie fire.

CATHERINE SANDOVAL: I would say that the No. 1 failing at PG&E has been their failure to learn from what happened.

BREKKE: Catherine Sandoval teaches law at Santa Clara University and is a former member of the California Public Utilities Commission. As an example of that failure, Sandoval points to the start of the Dixie fire. PG&E had rated the electrical line involved as among the riskiest in its entire network.

SANDOVAL: Yet they didn't share that information, apparently, with the operators who had the ability to, with the touch of a button - boop (ph) - cut off the power.

BREKKE: As a result, electricity continued to flow for 10 hours after remote sensors indicated trouble on the line. That problem turned out to be a tree lying across a live wire. The resulting fire burned nearly a million acres and took more than three months to contain.

PG&E declined a request for an interview but, in a series of recent statements, has said it has become a, quote, "fundamentally safer company." To help prevent future disasters, the company announced just after the start of the Dixie fire, it will bury 10,000 miles of power lines. The project will require the utility to dramatically speed up the process of undergrounding existing lines and to do it much more cheaply. Based on PG&E's long-quoted estimates, burying 10,000 miles of lines could cost $30 billion.


BREKKE: The showcase for the project is Paradise, the town PG&E burned down three years ago.

STEVE CROWDER: They're making progress.

BREKKE: Watching the work just outside Town Hall, Paradise Mayor Steve Crowder says he's encouraged by what he sees the company doing and what it means for the town going forward.

CROWDER: It's a challenge for people who are living here with, you know, roads being torn up and, you know, construction everywhere.

BREKKE: He says he wants to trust PG&E to be safer.

CROWDER: In the end, we're going to be the place to be.

BREKKE: For Crowder, that means PG&E making good on promises and learning from its past mistakes.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Brekke in Paradise, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIFTOFF'S "KOOL IT MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Brekke