California utility company PG&E was found at fault for sparking another massive inferno. This time it was the Dixie wildfire, the second largest in state history. Electrical distribution lines sparked the blaze after coming in contact with a tree, according to the results of an investigation completed by state firefighting agency Cal Fire yesterday.
The Dixie Fire raged for more than three months last year, burning over 1,300 structures and killing one person. In perhaps its most traumatic episode, the blaze tore through the town of Greenville one August evening — growing explosively overnight. By morning, it had decimated most of the historic Gold Rush town. “We lost Greenville tonight,” local Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) said as he held back tears in a video posted to Facebook on August 5th.
The scenes were reminiscent of the most destructive blaze the state has seen to date, the Camp Fire in 2018. Investigators pointed to PG&E power lines as the cause of that disaster as well. Camp Fire nearly wiped out the town of Paradise and nearby communities, killing 85 people and scorching more than 18,800 structures. In a case brought against it by Butte County, PG&E ultimately pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and another felony count of unlawfully causing a fire.
After that catastrophe, which contributed to the utility filing for bankruptcy in 2019, PG&E started to implement preemptive power outages when hot, dry conditions make landscapes ripe for fires. While that’s aimed at preventing blazes, it’s caused more troubles for California residents — particularly for healthcare facilities and people who depend on medical devices that need to be plugged in.
The company still faces another charge of manslaughter after one of its distribution lines sparked the Zogg Fire that killed four people in Northern California in September 2020.
Days after PG&E first disclosed that its equipment might have sparked the Dixie Fire last July, the company announced that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in another effort to prevent more devastating blazes. That project would sequester about 10 percent of the utility’s distribution and transmission lines underground, away from trees and vegetation that might burn if they come in contact. However, many experts are doubtful the utility can pull it off or that the benefits would outweigh the costs.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, PG&E said, “This tree was one of more than eight million trees within strike distance to PG&E lines … Regardless of today’s finding, we will continue to be tenacious in our efforts to stop fire ignitions from our equipment and to ensure that everyone and everything is always safe.”
Update 1/5/22 12:35PM ET: This post has been updated with a statement from PG&E
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