California Utility Admits Its Equipment May Have Been Involved in Starting Massive Wildfire

by Jennifer Shea

Pacific Gas & Electric equipment may have helped start the wildfire currently tearing through the Sierra Nevada, the utility reported to California regulators on Sunday. The Dixie Fire has put hundreds of houses at risk.

PG&E told the California Public Utilities Commission that a repairman trying to fix a circuit outage noticed a fire burning a neighboring tree on July 13, the Associated Press reports. There were blown fuses in a conductor there, and the tree was leaning into the conductor.

The circuit, in the Cresta Dam off Highway 70, had gone out around 7 a.m. that morning, but the repairman didn’t make it through the steep, difficult turf until about 5 p.m.

The utility worker reported the fire to his supervisor, who called 911. Firefighters showed up and dispensed water and fire retardant by 5:3o p.m. But by that evening, the fire had eaten through 10 to 15 acres, and firefighters had trouble traversing the terrain to get to it.

California Utility’s Equipment May Have Started The Dixie Fire

That fire, the Dixie Fire, took on new dimensions by Sunday, covering 63 square miles of mostly remote wilderness. But evacuation orders soon went out to the rural communities around the Feather River Canyon.

The fire is reportedly only 15% contained so far. It has torched the area northeast of Paradise, where a 2018 fire started by PG&E equipment killed 85 people. Survivors of that fire could only watch and wait to see how the Dixie Fire progressed.

That was not the first time PG&E equipment has sparked a deadly fire. In 2017 and 2018, wildfires caused by PG&E equipment killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings, according to the AP. The utility had long neglected its electrical grid. And it eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

Firefighters Say They Are Facing More Severe Fires Earlier in the Year

Meanwhile, firefighters said this month that they were up against fires more characteristic of late summer or fall when there is an end in sight. Conditions resulting from climate change – such as drought and heatwaves – have made their job much harder.

Meteorologists forecast dangerous weather for wildfires in California and southern Oregon. Through at least Monday, there is a chance of lightning. And considering the dry tinder on the ground, the National Weather Service said “any thunderstorm has the potential to ignite new fire starts.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service, at least 16 major fires are tearing through the Pacific Northwest at the moment. Roughly 70 large fires are burning across the U.S., per the National Interagency Fire Center.