Judge Orders Utility to Disclose Details on Dixie Fire

In a highly unusual judicial move, a US District Court judge has ordered the embattled utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to disclose information it has relative to the origins of the still-active Dixie fire in Northern California. The fire began on July 13, 2021, is less that 25% contained, and is predicted to become the largest wildland fire in California history. As of today, it ranks second behind the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to produce the information on July 21, 2021.  It is believed a tree came down on a PG&E transmission line sparking the fire. The question many have is how would a federal court have the jurisdiction to order a California utility to produce such information while the fire is still burning and without a lawsuit having been filed. The answer lies in the fact that PG&E remains under the court’s jurisdiction because it is on probation following its conviction by a federal court jury in 2016 that found it guilty on six criminal counts of violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. That case stems from the San Bruno gas explosion in 2010 that killed eight people and injured 58 others.

The released information acknowledges that PG&E was aware of an electrical problem in the area where the Dixie Fire began as early as 6:48 am, but CalFire was not notified of a fire until 5:01 pm. It provides insight into the logistical challenges PG&E personnel encountered that day, as well as the bureaucracy of an organization that was put into bankruptcy in 2019 as a result of its liability for past wildland fires. Quoting from the PG&E response:

  • The contemporaneous records reflect that, at approximately 6:48 a.m. on July 13, 2021, a line recloser at the Bucks Creek substation for the Bucks Creek 1101 Line recorded momentary current levels on two of the three phases in excess of the Minimum To Trip.
  • Exceeding the MTT threshold for a prescribed amount of time would have caused this line recloser to open or “trip,” resulting in deenergization of all three phases of the line.
  • In this instance, the duration of the excess current did not meet the requirements to trip the device.
  • At about 7:21 a.m., a Hydro Operator at the Rock Creek Switching Center advised the Northern Distribution Control Center that “it seems like we lost AC power supply to our Cresta Dam,” and that a “rover” (a roving operator with experience in hydro operations) had been dispatched to the dam.
  • According to the log, at 8:52 a.m., the roving operator reported that the Bucks Creek 1101 Line was out: lights were out in the nearby tunnel and the Cresta Dam station service was out.
  • According to the relevant records, at 9:36 a.m., a dispatcher created a non-emergency field order, or “tag.”
  • The tag was labeled Priority 1; under PG&E’s response policies, a priority one ticket should be addressed on the same day it is assigned.
  • [T]he tag was initially assigned to a troubleman based in Quincy, CA.
  • The Quincy troubleman responded that the tag should have been assigned to Chico or Paradise.
  • The records indicate that the tag was reassigned to a Chico service area troubleman at 10:47 a.m.
  • When the troubleman called the Control Center for further information on the situation, he was given the following report by the Control Center Operator: “Rock Creek called earlier and they were asking if we were having trouble on that Bucks Creek 1101, and I told them no, not as far as I can tell, and so he sent his rover out there, and they do in fact not have any station service. And he said that it’s something on our primary, because the tunnel—I think right there at Cresta—he said is dark.”
  • They discussed two fuses that might be at issue: Fuse 805 and Fuse 17733, and the difficulty of reaching the latter, which was up a difficult mountain road.
  • The Control Center Operator said, “because the breaker’s closed, it still has a good load, I don’t have any other indication of trouble, I would say it’s probably one of those two fuses.”
  • On the way to the Dam, the troubleman addressed another priority one ticket that he had received at 10:28 a.m.
  • He then proceeded to the Dam, arriving there at approximately 12:30 p.m.
  • The troubleman was not able to access the power equipment at the Dam, because the area containing the equipment was locked.
  • However, he could see the equipment and was able to determine that Fuse 805 had not blown.
  • He walked to a transformer one span away on the line that runs to the Dam.
  • The meter there was off, indicating to him that the power was out.
  • The troubleman then patrolled the area in an effort to discover the cause of the power outage.
  • He did not see anything at the Dam that appeared to him to be the source of the outage.
  • Using his binoculars, he visually inspected the distribution line, the Bucks Creek 1101 Line, running towards the source side device, fuse 17733, on the opposite side of the river.
  • All the poles and wires on the line appeared to him to be up and in their normal positions, not bent or twisted.
  • However, he saw what he believed to be a fuse hanging down from a pole on the circuit.
  • He believed that a hanging fuse would indicate that the fuse had operated and would need to be replaced.
  • He does not recall seeing any vegetation on the line or any smoke or other indication of a fire.
  • He returned to his truck so that he could drive up the hill to inspect the possible hanging fuse.
  • To access the fuse, the troubleman had to drive down Highway 70, cross the river, and then drive up a long, narrow unpaved access road.
  • The condition of the access road was such that he was often able to drive no faster than approximately 3 miles per hour.
  • About a mile or two from the location of the fuse, he encountered a Butte County road crew performing maintenance work on the bridge, blocking access to the only road leading to the fuse.
  • Portions of the bridge decking appeared to him to be missing, and it appeared to him to be impossible to drive across.
  • The crew informed him it would be about two hours before he could pass.
  • He then drove back down the access road to a location with cell service.
  • At approximately 3:00 p.m., he reached an area with cell service and saw that he had received two priority zero emergency tags that were unrelated to the Cresta Dam tag.
  • He then called the District Operator to ask if he should leave the area to attend to the priority zero tags or stay to address the priority one tag.
  • The District Operator advised that other troublemen were closer to the priority zero tags.
  • The District Operator advised the troubleman to go back when the crew was done and then “try to fix that fuse.”
  • The troubleman returned to the bridge, arriving at approximately 4:30 p.m.; it appeared to him that the County road crew had finished its work for the day.
  • There was a “road closed” sign before the bridge, but he decided to cross anyway because the repairs that had been made at that point appeared to him to be sufficient for him to cross safely in his truck.
  • He estimates he arrived at the pole at about 4:40 p.m.
  • He saw that fuses on two of the phases/conductors were tripped, or open.
  • The fuse on the third phase remained closed.
  • As he exited the truck, he could smell smoke but assumed it was coming from the Sugar Fire.
  • He got into the bucket of his truck to access the fuses in order to open the third fuse to prevent “single phasing,” which can cause damage to equipment.
  • As he was going up in the bucket, he could see a fire downhill from his position, about two-thirds of the way to the next pole.
  • The fire was to the left side of the right of way and roughly 600 or 800 square feet in an oval shape.
  • The near edge of the fire was not at the right of way; the far edge was roughly 25 yards from the right of way.
  • He could also see a tree—later identified by a PG&E arborist as a Douglas Fir—leaning against the line.
  • He did not see any breaks in the lines or damage to other equipment.
  • The troubleman opened the fuse on the third phase, then lowered his bucket to the ground, and radioed the dispatch operators in Rocklin and Chico for help.
  • At that time, he did not hear a response on the radio; however, the Rock Creek Switching Center Operator Log Report reflects that a PG&E employee heard the radio call at 5:01 p.m. and notified Cal Fire at 5:06 p.m.
  • Because he was not certain whether his call for help had been received, he decided to attempt to fight the fire himself.
  • He took the fire extinguisher from his truck and slid about 60-80 yards downhill to the fire. He emptied the fire extinguisher but was unable to put out the fire.
  • He climbed back up to his truck, where he heard his supervisor trying to reach him on the radio.
  • He reported the fire to his supervisor, who called 9-1-1.
  • He then took a pressurized water extinguisher and a McLeod tool from his truck and continued to try to fight the fire.
  • After he emptied the pressurized water extinguisher, he attempted to dig a fire break near the access road.
  • The troubleman estimates that at this point the fire had grown to about 1,200 square feet.
  • The troubleman remained in the area and, at approximately 5:30 p.m., saw first a Cal Fire spotter plane and then a Cal Fire helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft arrive and begin suppressing the fire.
  • At approximately 7:00 p.m., a four-person Cal Fire ground crew arrived.
  • One of the crew members informed the troubleman that an additional ground crew was on its way.
  • The Cal Fire truck was not able to cross the closed bridge, so the troubleman drove to the bridge in order to offer assistance in bringing the ground crew and their equipment to the fire.
  • A PG&E transmission supervisor arrived while the troubleman was at the bridge; the  troubleman brought the transmission supervisor to the site of the fire.
  • The troubleman informed a Cal Fire investigator of the two open fuses and the tree on the line.
  • Around the same time, a ten-person Cal Fire ground crew arrived.  
  • The troubleman asked if he could be of assistance, but was told that his help was no longer needed.
  • The troubleman and transmission supervisor left the scene at approximately 8:00 p.m.

The Dixie Fire has burned more than 489,000 acres (over 765 square miles), destroyed over 370 structures including 2 towns (Greenville and Rush Bar), and left four people unaccounted for.

Here are some supporting documents including the original indictment from the San Bruno explosion, the jury verdict form, the judgment/sentence, Judge Alsup’s order and PG&E’s response.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 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) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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