Flames already were tearing through a Northern California town earlier this month when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. made the decision that improved weather conditions meant it wouldn’t have to shut off power to the area as a precaution against wildfires, according to documents filed by the utility.
PG&E explained its decision not to follow through on warnings that it might shut off power in a filing late Tuesday with the state Public Utilities Commission.
It came as PG&E faces lawsuits regarding the cause of the fire that killed at least 88 people and destroyed 13,000 homes in the Paradise area. PG&E has previously reported a power outage occurred on one of its transmission lines around the time the fire began, at 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8. It also has said a transmission line malfunctioned a short time after the fire sparked, another possible source being investigated by officials.
Two days earlier, the utility had warned roughly 70,000 customers across nine counties that it might shut off power due to fire risks from high winds and low humidity. By 1 p.m. on Nov. 8, the utility determined weather conditions no longer warranted a potential shut-off, according to the Tuesday filing.
The decision came even though a National Weather Service red flag warning remained in effect for Northern California involving “extreme fire conditions” from wind gusts up to 55 mph (86 kph) and low humidity.
The fast-moving fire already had destroyed parts of Paradise and surrounding towns.
“Based on the forecasted information, PG&E no longer anticipated a possible need to de-energize,” the filing said. “PG&E immediately informed all stakeholders of the change in conditions and that no lines would be proactively de-energized.”
The utility began the program to pre-emptively shut off power during dangerous fire conditions after last year’s devastating wildfires in Northern California wine country. The power shut-offs are “not deployed as a response to an active fire,” spokeswoman Megan McFarland said in a Wednesday email.
However, the utility will de-energize lines during emergencies if requested by state fire officials to protect first responders, McFarland said. If the utility does discontinue power due to weather conditions, it shuts off distribution lines, not transmission lines that are higher voltage, McFarland said.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the fire and are seeking help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that as many as 2,000 trailers could be used to help house survivors, some possibly as soon as this week.
Other survivors are being housed in hotels and apartments, some using financial assistance from the government, said Toney Raines, head of FEMA’s housing task force.
Tina Curry, a deputy director at California’s Office of Emergency Services, called the magnitude of the fire unprecedented and says it happened in an area that already had a housing shortage.
“There’s a huge challenge before us,” she said.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order Wednesday to help affected school districts by waiving requirements for class sizes, physical education and building codes. The order also allows the Paradise Unified School District to continue teaching students at temporary facilities even if the children are now living outside district boundaries.