An NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit analysis of newly obtained inspection records reveals that eight towers on the aging PG&E transmission system blamed in the Camp Fire had passed inspections just days before the blaze, only to fail emergency climbing inspections the company conducted in the days after.
Friday marks the one year anniversary of the most destructive wildfire in state history, which claimed 85 lives, burned more than 150,000 acres and leveled nearly 19,000 structures. The Camp Fire has been blamed on a C-hook that snapped and touched off an explosion on a tower on the 115,000-volt Caribou-Palermo line near the town of Pulga in Butte County.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has reviewed 11,260 PG&E inspection reports that identified significant problems after the fire, and compared results to inspection records of checks done on the decommissioned line before the fire.
This year, PG&E post-fire inspections uncovered more than 1,000 critical conditions, along with more than 10,000 high priority problems.
PG&E’s inspections have come under new scrutiny in the wake of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that broke out Oct. 23 of this year. The utility’s inspection of the tower in March found that the jumper cable that broke sometime before the fire was in good condition 7 months before, company officials said.
In the case of the Caribou-Palermo Line, inspectors found a total of 18 dangerous conditions that required immediate action and more than 120 other less serious risks when they climbed all the towers late last year on the now-decommissioned system. Many of the towers were labeled “No Good/Out of Standard.”
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit’s review of the pre-fire inspection reports on 79 of the towers shows that eight were inspected before and after the fire. All eight towers passed pre-fire climbing inspections only to fail inspections after.
One tower, No. 11-99, was inspected twice after the fire and each time declared to have immediate hazards, including a badly deteriorated arm. But when it was inspected just 10 days before the fire, the crew’s report found it to be in “overall great condition” and had even been recently painted.
When asked about the two sets of findings, PG&E said it has commissioned an outside firm to review post-fire inspection reports at the behest of state regulators. Officials with the state Public Utilities Commission say that report is not yet final.
The utility stressed that the specific tower that was tied to the fire, No. 27-222, was not among the towers its inspectors climbed during the weeks before the fire.
As for the eight other towers, the company says there are many explanations for having caught problems after the fire but not before, such as “the condition may have arisen or become more visible since the last inspection or patrol, or the enhanced inspection methods may have provided a better vantage point for detecting the condition.”
But Mark Toney, head of the ratepayer advocacy group TURN, worries about the contradictory results, given the importance of getting inspections right to protect the safety of everyone.
“The fact that PG&E could inspect eight transmission towers on one day and inspect the same eight a few weeks later, and reverse themselves,” he said, “gives nobody any confidence that PG&E has the capability to inspect and run their system properly.”
“Why the difference?” asked Catherine Sandoval, a former member of the CPUC. “The first inspection certainly wasn’t done to levels necessary to keep us safe, and that’s unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Butte County are examining the findings of pre-fire inspections as they try to figure out what the company knew about its system leading up to the fire.
“These were 98-year-old towers, and 98-year-old towers would seem to desire a little more loving maintenance than possibly was done here,” said Butte County’s District Attorney Mike Ramsey in a recent interview, saying the ongoing probe involves “digging up through the corporate structure, trying to find out who did what, when.”
“It’s a matter of justice,” he said, adding that prosecutors could potentially seek $2.5 million in fines and much more in restitution. But, he says, no matter what happens in the case, some things can never return to the way they were. Like how the community now measures time.
“You say that there was BC — before Camp — and AD — after destruction,” Ramsey said. “Life changed on Nov. 8 for the Butte County community.”