California Utility Companies Say Power Outages Occurred Right Before Wildfire Outbreak

November 13, 2018 Updated: November 13, 2018

Two separate California utility companies have reported power outages that took place just minutes before both recent deadly wildfires broke out.

The latest update from CalFire reported the Camp Fire had claimed 42 civilians and injured 3. It also showed that the deadly fire started at 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8th near the town of Pulga.

In an electric safety incident report to the California Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in California, said the company had a power outage at about 6:15 a.m. in Butte County.

According to the report, the outage occurred about 20 mins before the deadly fire broke out. In addition, the report says later that same day, PG&E found damage to a transmission tower, which was located about one mile northeast of the town of Pulga, where the Camp Fire started.

The company claimed that the information in the report is preliminary, and the cause of the Camp Fire has not been determined by authorities. However, PG&E suffered a huge drop in the stock market while the Camp Fire kept spreading.

On Monday, the company witnessed the “worst one-day plunge in 16 years,” reported Bloomberg. Its shares at one point dropped more than 37 percent to $26.85 and triggered a trading halt before closing at $32.98. Bloomberg said the company has dropped “as much as 48 percent in two days of trading” since the Camp Fire started.

BetsyAnn Cowley, a resident from Pulga, told the San Francisco Chronicle that one day before the fire broke out, PG&E informed her repair work might be needed on her property. “They told me they were coming through because of problems with the lines,” she told the outlet.

In addition, on the same day when the Camp Fire ignited, the company canceled a Public Safety Power Shutoff, a strategy to avoid wildfire in unfavorable weather, in Butte County and other counties, because “weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure,” PG&E said in a news release.

Another deadly fire, the Woolsey Fire, which also started on Nov. 8, has charred more than 90,000 acres of land in Southern California’s Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Fueled by Santa Ana winds, the fire grew quickly and forced as many as 250,000 people to flee their homes.

Southern California Edison, a counterpart of PG&E in Southern California, experienced a similar worrying situation. In a report, SCE confirmed that an outage occurred just two minutes before the Woolsey Fire was reported.

“Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m. Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m.,” SCE said in the report. “Our personnel have not accessed the area to assess our facilities in the vicinity of where the fire reportedly began.”

“At this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire,” SCE stated.

However, Edison International, who owns SCE, also had a huge drop in their shares and lost “more than a third of its value” since the Woolsey Fire started, reported Bloomberg on Monday.

In May 2018, Cal Fire alleged that three wildfires of the 2017 Northern California firestorm, which burned more than 245,000 acres and killed 44 people in Northern California, were ignited by PG&E power lines making contact with trees nearby.

A law signed by the Governor in September helps utilities avoid potential bankruptcy due to the 2017 fires and allows the companies to pass on fire-related costs to customers. However, the new California law did not specifically cover the 2018 fires.

According to Reuters, there are about 200 lawsuits against PG&E related to the 2017 fires. The company could face costs of up to billions of dollars.