Investors Flee As PG&E Faces Scrutiny Over Cause of Northern California’s Camp Fire

Investors are bailing out on PG&E as the troubled utility potentially faces more financial liability from the Camp Fire in Butte County, one of the state’s most deadly wildfires.

Source: Sacramento Bee | Published on November 13, 2018

Meadow back burn and Oregon ash tree. River Complex fire in Trinity County, California.

PG&E’s stock price has fallen by one third since the utility disclosed to state regulators late Thursday that one of its transmission lines suffered an outage at about the time the Camp Fire ignited near the town of Pulga. The outage occurred at 6:15 a.m., or 14 minutes before Cal Fire said the fire started.

The stock price decline includes a drop of 17 percent Monday, to $32.98 a share, on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Camp Fire has destroyed more than 6,700 homes and other buildings, creating potential liabilities in the billions of dollars. More than 200 people are still reported missing, and 42 have been confirmed dead. The fire is 25 percent contained, Cal Fire reported Monday.

Despite the outage on the transmission line in Pulga, investigators at Cal Fire haven’t determined a cause for the Camp Fire. The information about the transmission line “is preliminary and there is no determination on the cause of the fire as of yet,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo.

The Bay Area News Group reported Monday that a property owner in the vicinity, Betsy Ann Cowley, received an email from PG&E the day before the fire erupted, saying crews would be coming to fix a problem with a nearby tower. It wasn’t clear what the problem was. Cowley owns a rustic retreat called the Town of Pulga.

PG&E isn’t the only California utility under siege. Southern California Edison told regulators that a substation experienced a problem near the spot in Chatsworth where the Woolsey Fire erupted, according to the Los Angeles Times. Shares in the utility’s parent, Edison International, have fallen 22 percent since the fire ignited last Thursday. The Woolsey Fire has killed two people and prompted mass evacuations.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. came under enormous criticism after the wine country fires last year killed 44 people and caused at least $10 billion in damages. Cal Fire said transmission lines and other PG&E equipment were responsible for 16 of the fires, although it still hasn’t found a cause for the deadliest of the fires, the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which killed 24 people.

In response, PG&E suspended shareholder dividends to conserve cash and lobbied the Legislature for protection from mounting liabilities. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September that offers partial relief by directing the Public Utilities Commission, when deciding if wildfire liabilities can be passed onto ratepayers, to determine if a utility has acted properly. Previous law made utilities liable for wildfire damages even if they weren’t negligent.

PG&E has also instituted a more aggressive tree-trimming program, ramped up its weather-observation resources and implemented a fire-safety power outage program in the event of extremely dry and windy weather.

The utility cut power to 59,000 customers throughout Northern California for three days in October and had alerted authorities and customers that another big power shutdown, affecting 63,000 customers in eight counties, was likely to begin last Thursday, the day the Camp Fire began.

Parts of Butte County would have been affected, but utility spokeswoman Paulo said the area around the Camp Fire wasn’t included. PG&E canceled the shutdown for the entire region after determining the weather conditions “didn’t meet the criteria” for a blackout, she said.

Still, PG&E’s legions of critics said the utility should have been more aggressive about taking power systems offline.

“They advertised this great system, that they’re going to disconnect power. They give notice that they’re going to disconnect power, and then they don’t do it,” said attorney Steve Campora, a partner in the Sacramento law firm of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora. “They’re just not effective in what they do.”

Campora, who filed multiple lawsuits against PG&E on behalf of victims of the wine country fires, said he has heard from numerous Camp Fire victims who are interested in filing suit.

“The loss of life and property is simply staggering. We are focused on supporting first responders as they work to contain the fire and keep people safe, and we encourage everyone to follow their instructions and directions as the fire conditions continue to change,” Paulo said.