CPUC Launches PG&E Probe in Wake of Deadly North Bay Firestorm

The state’s Public Utilities Commission has launched a probe into PG&E’S vegetation management and maintenance practices in the wake of the deadly firestorm in the North Bay.

Late Thursday, the CPUC’s head of safety formally ordered the company to “preserve any factual or physical evidence” related to the fire, including all “failed poles, conductors and associated equipment from each event.”

Earlier Thursday, PUC President Michael Picker revealed the agency, along with Cal Fire, is probing whether PG&E's practices fueled the firestorm.

“We’re also looking into PG&E activities in this area with a specific focus on maintenance of facilities and vegetation management practices.”

The probe comes as NBC Bay Area has been reporting on the company’s vegetation management program, specifically its cutback on power line safety patrols in 2013. The savings ended up being spent in urban areas, where fewer outages would help more people, and also could lead to bigger bonuses for company executives.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said Thursday he hopes to convene a hearing on PG&E’s vegetation management practices. He welcomed the probe, which came as he had written a letter urging state regulators to make sure the utility preserves fire related evidence.

“I think the preservation of evidence is crucial in determining what that root cause is and where responsibility falls,” he said before the PUC sent the preservation order letter. “I think in this case we need to make sure that the PUC puts PG&E on notice.”

The preservation letter comes as the utility has been chastised for failing to alert regulators about problems and for not preserving evidence.

In the case of the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras couties, PG&E failed to alert regulators that the massive blaze was caused by an at-risk tree falling onto its power lines. The fire claimed two lives back in September 2015.

In the 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno, state regulators cited the utility for “gross negligence” for failing to maintain evidence related to a gas system control room video.

Attorney Frank Pitre, who went up against the utility over the Butte fire and San Bruno blast, welcomes the investigation and says the order to preserve evidence is a good first step.

“I think that an order like that would be welcome for the benefit of the state of California and especially to provide answers to those people who have been victimized by this fire.”

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