More Butte Fire fines levied on PG&E

The aftermath of the Butte Fire is still readily visible in many regions in Calaveras County. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued two staff citations totaling $8.3 million to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for violations related to the Butte Fire in 2015 that burned close to 71,000 acres of land, according to a press release issued by the commission.

CPUC found in its investigation that PG&E did not safely maintain its 12-kilovolt overhead electric conductor in a safe and proper manner, resulting in an $8 million fine, the maximum for any one citation issued under the CPUC’s rules and regulations.

The investigation revealed a planned removal in January of 2015 of two trees close to the area exposed the gray pine tree that sparked the fire when it contacted a PG&E conductor in September of 2015.

“Part of our investigation included determining when PG&E had last conducted vegetation management in the area, which was January 2015,” Christopher Chow, an information officer with the CPUC said Wednesday.

The ensuing blaze destroyed a total of 921 structures – 549 homes and 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties – and damaged 44 other structures. The fire also resulted in two fatalities and injuries.

A second citation was issued to PG&E totaling $300,000 for two violations, including failure to report to the CPUC that its facilities may have been linked to the fire in a timely manner.

PG&E was fined $250,000 after a CPUC investigation found that the utility was aware of a link to the fire no later than Sept. 11, 2015, but failed to notify the CPUC until five days later. The commission requires that utility companies notify the commission two hours after the receipt of information during working hours or within four hours during nonworking hours. The utility company was also fined $50,000 for failing to maintain the minimum required clearance between the conductor and the tree.

According to the press release, PG&E has 30 days to pay the fines or contest the citations.

While the state continues its investigations into the blaze, home owners impacted by the fire are still waiting for the rest of settlement payments to roll out.

Gerald Singleton of Singleton Law Firm said that he has been very pleased with the way that settlements have progressed between PG&E and his law firm.

“From my perspective, PG&E has been excellent on how quickly they have responded,” said Singleton. “Obviously there is still a long way to go, but as to where we are now, we are very pleased with the way PG&E has responded.”

Singleton’s firm has the bulk of Butte Fire victors as clients and has been working with PG&E since the fire to structure settlements with his clients. Of the 1,600 individuals to file suit against PG&E, nearly 1,000 are represented by Singleton’s firm through 520 different cases. Singleton’s firm was also the first to file charges against PG&E.

Singleton said that the Butte Fire settlements are moving at a healthy pace compared to other large scale fires that his firm has handled in the past. He said that at this point in time, his firm has settled over 100 Butte Fire cases involving over 300 individuals.

Singleton added that settlements for the Witch Fire in San Diego that scorched 197,990 acres of land in the San Diego area did not begin to roll out until two years after the fire. The final case was not handled until 2014, six years after the start of the fire.

He also mentioned the Power House Fire in Northern Los Angeles that started in 2013. Those cases were not settled until March of this year.

Singleton offered a 9-12 month time frame for his client’s settlements if the pace of current agreements continues but admitted that circumstances out of both PG&E and his firms control could change the timetable for settlements.

He also said that the other law firms involved with Butte Fire settlements might have a different time frame, or a different opinion of dealings with PG&E and that he could only speak for his firm.

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