PG&E acknowledged to a federal judge Tuesday that it is currently running well short of its tree-trimming goal this year as it heads into the heart of the fire season. The utility says it is having trouble finding enough people to do the job.
The company had hoped to cut trees away from 2,455 miles of power lines by year’s end, but as of Sept. 21, crews had only finished work on 760 miles of lines, it told U.S. Judge William Alsup.
At a Sept. 17 hearing on its probation related to the San Bruno gas explosion and fire, PG&E lawyers sought to assure Alsup that it was cutting more trees than ever before and suggested it was on track with its efforts.
Outside that hearing, PG&E’s new CEO Bill Johnson said the company had enlisted 4,500 workers to get the work done.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure we are well prepared for this fire season,” Johnson said.
But an attorney for wildfire victims, Dario di Ghetali, called that claim into question in light of the latest filing.
“It’s inexcusable that they have done less than a third of the miles that they were supposed to inspect and trim,” he said. “It’s just inexcusable.”
He struggled to figure out why the company didn’t share the data it had with the judge during the hearing. “Why they didn’t, I don’t know,” he said. “But they should have, and they didn’t.”
The problem in meeting that first year goal, the company told the judge, has been finding enough crews.
Getting the job done, the company said, “is dependent on its ability to significantly increase the number of qualified personnel” to do the work, as well as bringing in more quality control monitors.
The company’s effort is also hindered by “vegetation density, topography, access and environmental considerations,” and there is a big question to be answered: Just how many trees will need to be cut along the lines to comply with what the company has called “unprecedented” standards?
Even with recent power shutoffs, PG&E told the judge Tuesday that trees or equipment may be to blame for three out of nine fires that exceed 10 acres this year. The rest it blamed on animals, vehicles or in one case, the cause is still not known.
Di Ghetaldi says that so far, the state has been lucky.
“We are very worried that a fire will start on the 1,500 miles of lines that they haven’t inspected,” he said, “that they should have inspected by now, that they were supposed to have inspected by now.”