California utility regulators fine PG&E $45 million for Dixie Fire, state’s 2nd-largest wildfire

The California Public Utilities Commission approved a $45 million fine Thursday against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in state history that scorched nearly 1 million acres in 2021 and gutted more than 1,300 structures.

The utility caused the 963,000-acre fire after a Douglas Fir tree fell on its power lines, sparking flames across five Northern California counties, according to Cal Fire. PG&E has settled civil lawsuits brought by multiple Sacramento Valley district attorneys for $55 million to avoid prosecution in both the Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire.

Nearly 90% of CPUC’s penalty — $40 million — mandates PG&E digitize its maintenance records. Other recipients of the shareholder-funded fine include $2.5 million to be given to tribal entities affected by the fire and $2.5 million to be deposited in California’s general fund.

The safety and enforcement division of CPUC will monitor PG&E for ongoing compliance, according to CPUC.

“(The Dixie Fire) has real implications for the people of California and the residents of these counties, many of whom still do not have housing and have not fully recovered from the impacts of this fire,” said CPUC Commissioner Darcie Houck in Thursday’s meeting.

CPUC commissioners approved the fine by a 3-2 vote.

The five commissioners split into two blocs, disagreeing whether the $45 administrative consent order recommended by CPUC’s safety and enforcement division sufficiently holds PG&E responsible. The safety and enforcement division alleged PG&E violated seven CPUC public utility codes.

On July 13, 2021, a Douglas Fir tree fell onto electrical distribution lines owned by PG&E and sparked flames across Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties for about four months.

It cost $637 million in taxpayer dollars to suppress, making it the most expensive wildfire to be contained in California history, Houck said.

The utility company accepted that a tree crashing into a power line caused the conflagration and said in a statement it’s working hard to make the system safer everyday. But the company maintains it followed CPUC’s requirements when inspecting, maintaining and operating the system, according to a statement.

“PG&E believes we acted as a prudent operator,” the statement said. “There is no evidence that PG&E consciously and willfully disregarded a known risk with regard to the ignition of the Dixie Fire.”

CPUC commissioners Houck and Genevieve Shiroma voted against the penalty because it doesn’t outline specifically how widespread wildfires can be prevented.

“In regard to both the administrative consent order and PG&E’s responses, I am still not satisfied with the level of detail provided,” Shiroma said. “And, I don’t believe I have enough information to support the administrative consent order.”

PG&E said it will provide details in the future about the plans it seeks to implement, Shiroma said, but she wanted specific details before approving the $45 million fine.

The administrative consent order didn’t address Dixie Fire’s root cause — that there was a lack communication tools in the field to alert PG&E personnel and authorities of danger, Shiroma said. Specific employees must have the right knowledge to prevent a fire, she added.

On the day the Dixie Fire sparked, a PG&E employee couldn’t immediately communicate with authorities that a power line near Cresta Dam in remote Plumas County malfunctioned, investigators have said.

“It’s not about the records being digitized or not, but about the tools immediately available to PG&E personnel in the field and the company’s safety culture,” Shiroma said.

Houck concurred with Shiroma and added that she seeks to learn how CPUC’s safety and enforcement division will ensure PG&E complies with the administrative consent order.

She needed more information about whether the $45 million penalty was sufficient given the seriousness of the allegations, and who is responsible for changing PG&E’s safety culture. CPUC slapped PG&E with a $125 million fine in 2021 over the Kincade Fire, which was started by a faulty transmission line. In 2020, it agreed to a $1.9 billion penalty over devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma counties in 2017 and the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, which destroyed the town of Paradise.

“I do agree that there is a lot being done in addition to this consent order (but) there’s more that needs to be done,” Houck said of the Dixie Fire fine.

But the three other CPUC commissioners — Alice Bushing Reynolds, Karen Douglas and John Reynolds — noted the safety measures PG&E has already implemented.

Alice Bushing Reynolds, president of the state utilities commission, said PG&E implemented a new program that detects disturbances on its distribution lines, such as a tree falling on it.

“This program was not in place in time to prevent the Dixie Fire,” the CPUC president said.

Douglas said PG&E has addressed the cause of the Dixie Fire by installing this program.

“This negotiated settlement between PG&E and (the safety and enforcement division) ... neither is PG&E accepting fault for the fire, nor is SED accepting it,” John Reynolds said. “The two parties have merely agreed to resolve their dispute with the settlement.”