Did Bonuses to Utility Company Executives Lead to Major California Wildland Fire

NBC Bay Area just completed an extensive investigative reporting piece that poses a very troubling question: Did the prospect of bonuses tempt Pacific Gas & Electric Company executives to cut corners that caused the Butte fire in September, 2015 that burned over 70,000 acres, destroyed over 500 homes, and killed two people?

UPDATE 9/12/2017

Here is a formal statement from PG&E on the story:

We continue to extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and the communities that suffered losses as a result of the Butte fire, and we continue to work to resolve their claims. We’re pleased to be able to reach agreement with households in the August and October trials on their claims, and we want to reassure all of our customers and their families that we are unequivocally committed to their safety.

We recognize the hardships that this fire caused and we are committed to helping our friends and neighbors recover. All of us at PG&E share the view that the safety of the public, our employees and contractors is our absolute core value and non-negotiable top priority

With regards to our Vegetation Management program, to help prevent outages and incidents caused by trees, PG&E monitors and manages vegetation adjacent to our electric system. PG&E and our expert contractors patrol our 70,000-square-mile service area and monitor as many as 55 million trees. Monitoring consists of redundant foot and aerial patrols, in addition to the use of remote sensing technology, specifically LiDAR (Light-detecting and Ranging), to identify trees to be worked. Our routine tree maintenance program identifies about 1.2 million trees each year to be pruned or removed to comply with state and regulatory compliance requirements.

Since the tree mortality crisis began, which has killed upwards of 102 million trees in California so far, we have added extraordinary measures to our routine tree maintenance program. We created a special program to mitigate dead or dying trees due to drought impacts and bark beetle infestation. This program includes inspecting trees along power lines in high fire-danger areas twice a year, and some areas as often as four times per year. Under this program, in 2016, we removed 236,000 dead or dying trees (that’s about 7 times our pre-drought three-year average). This is in addition to the 1.2 million trees worked under the annual routine program. We have partnered with and provided funding to California Fire Safe Councils to support projects to help reduce risks associated with wildfires, including fuel reduction work and smoke detection cameras. We fund five fixed-wing aerial fire detection patrol planes that fly June through October to spot and speed response to fires. We have taken a lead role in the Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force, which is comprised of state and federal agencies, local governments, other utilities, and various stakeholders to coordinate emergency protective actions and to monitor ongoing conditions associated with the tree mortality epidemic. And, we partner with CAL FIRE and provide funding to help raise awareness about defensible space and wildfire prevention.

Thank you,

Lynsey Paulo
Corporate Relations, Manager
24 Hour News Line: 415-973-5930
Email: sdla@pge.com

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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