Commentary: Thomas Elias: Another Big Utility Under Suspicion in Fire Disasters
By Thomas Elias
As disastrous and deadly wildfires raged through once-lovely residential areas in the Wine Country and other Northern California points this fall, there were signs that the aftermath could play out similarly to a scene that began almost exactly 10 years earlier in Southern California.
Loud claims were heard this time that negligent maintenance of power lines and poles, together with insufficient brush cutting near them by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., were among reasons for the fast spread of those flames, which consumed well over 8,000 homes and buildings and took several dozen lives.
If that’s ever proven, one state senator demanded, PG&E should be broken up. Said Democrat Jerry Hill of San Mateo, a persistent thorn in utilities’ sides, “If we find that in this particular case — and we don’t know the cause yet — then frankly I don’t think PG&E should do business in California any more,” he said. “They’ve crossed the line too many times,” he added, referring to the company’s federal negligence conviction in the multi-fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. “They would need to be dissolved in some way, split.”
Suspicions against PG&E result in part from what happened in October 2007, when winds up to 100 mph whipped arcing power lines owned by San Diego Gas & Electric Co., eventually starting a small fire near Ramona, in eastern San Diego County. Known as the Witch Creek Fire, this blaze grew exponentially and reached the San Diego city limits. It combined with two other fires, and burned down whole neighborhoods. More than 1,125 residences were destroyed as at least 197,000 acres burned in some of California’s highest-priced neighborhoods. The evacuations eventually involved about half a million persons, still the largest ever in this state.