“Your company is a convicted felon that poses a threat to the people of California.”
That’s how U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ended today’s hearing on whether PG&E has violated the conditions of their probation. PG&E is under criminal probation after a conviction for a 2010 explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno. Now PG&E must answer to Judge Alsup for the Dixie Fire.
Judge Alsup questioned the PG&E employee who was the first person to report the Dixie Fire and asked why the power to the ignition site was not shut off despite the significant danger of wildfires.
The employee’s name was not used in open court for his protection, instead, he was referred to only as “the troubleman.”
The troubleman testified that on July 14, the day the Dixie Fire started, he received a report of an outage near Cresta Dam in Feather River Canyon tagged as “Priority 1,” a distinction PG&E uses for non-emergencies. The troubleman used binoculars to identify blown fuses on the line.
Despite being unable to see the entire power line due to the terrain, the troubleman did not make the 10 to 15 minute drive to Switch #941, where he could have shut off power to the line. Instead, the troubleman spent several hours traveling through the canyon to the site of the blown fuses.
Judge Alsup asked, “wouldn’t it have been the prudent thing to do to turn that power off in case there was a tree on the line?” The troubleman stated that PG&E policy did not give him the authority to cut power to a line without cause and that he was unable to contact dispatch to report the blown fuses.
During this three-hour window, PG&E could have prevented the Dixie Fire by turning off the power on the line leading to the eventual ignition site.
Once the troubleman arrived, he saw a tree leaning on the power lines and a fire that he estimated at 600 to 800 sq. ft. With only a 2.5 gallon fire extinguisher, a 2.5 gallon water canister, and a few hand tools, the troubleman attempted to fight the fire himself and while he frantically called for help on his radio.
A Cal-Fire spotter plane, helicopter, and crews joined the firefighting effort, but the Dixie Fire has since spread to over 900,000 acres.
Judge Alsup read a transcript of a call in which the troubleman told his dispatcher that a tree on the power line had ignited a fire.
After the troubleman’s testimony, Judge Alsup ordered lawyers representing PG&E identify all people who made decisions not to cut power to the line leading to the ignition site, the names of all dispatchers working that day, and transcripts of any calls made between dispatch and employees in the field.