After California’s massive Dixie Fire, PG&E to ramp up spending on wildfire safety in 2022

PG&E Corp. spent nearly $4.9 billion last year to prevent wildfires — and still wound up responsible for the second-largest fire in California history. This year it plans to raise its wildfire safety budget to almost $6 billion. California’s largest utility filed its 2022 “wildfire mitigation plan” with state regulators Friday, offering a blueprint for how it intends to reduce risk at a time of climate change and drought. The budget for 2022 is expected to hit $5.96 billion.

Perhaps its most ambitious initiative is an accelerated effort to bury electricity lines underground in the most fire-prone areas of its service territory. Pacific Gas and Electric launched the multi-year project last July, shortly after its equipment ignited the Dixie Fire. The Dixie Fire burned 963,000 acres and destroyed much of the small Plumas County community of Greenville. The fire began when a tree made contact with a PG&E power pole in the Feather River Canyon.

“PG&E has taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop, and our wildfire mitigation plan for 2022 details the work we are doing right now to make that stand a reality,” said Chief Executive Patti Poppe in a prepared statement. California’s major utilities have to file annual wildfire plans with the Public Utilities Commission and a new agency called the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety. Wildfire damages drove PG&E into bankruptcy in early 2019, and the company remains dogged by wildfire risks nearly two years after it completed the bankruptcy case. Damages from three major fires in the past two years — Kincade in Sonoma County, Zogg in Shasta County and Dixie — are expected to total around $2 billion.

Plus there’s the company’s criminal liability. Sonoma prosecutors have been negotiating a possible settlement with PG&E over criminal charges filed in the Kincade Fire, which burned in October 2019. Criminal charges are pending in the Zogg Fire, which killed four people. Meanwhile, prosecutors in multiple counties, along with the U.S. Justice Department, are investigating the possibility of criminal charges in the Dixie Fire. The utility also plans to expand its controversial “enhanced powerline safety settings” program, which began soon after the Dixie Fire erupted. The program amps up the settings on PG&E’s circuit breakers in hazardous areas during fire season, instantly shutting off power when PG&E’s equipment comes into contact with trees, animals or other things that could start a fire.

Unlike the company’s public safety power outages, which come with 48-hour advance notice, the circuit-breaker blackouts occur without warning. The circuit breakers triggered about 600 blackouts last summer, affecting hundreds of thousands of customers, earning PG&E a rebuke from the Public Utilities Commission. But PG&E says the new system prevented a slew of blazes last year, and argues that if it had been in effect earlier it would have kept the Dixie Fire from starting. This year, it will increase the number of affected circuit breakers, although it says it has fine-tuned the system so blackouts wouldn’t spread as far and won’t last as long. PG&E is also deploying more high-tech equipment this year to detect fire hazards, including 98 high-definition cameras and 100 remote weather stations. It will also continue its “enhanced vegetation management” work to aggressively trim and remove trees that could brush against its equipment. The company said the increased spending has already been factored into PG&E’s proposed rate hike, which was filed last June with the Public Utilities Commission. As a result, the 2022 wildfire plan won’t increase the amount of money PG&E is proposing to charge customers. In the rate case, the utility would increase residential customers’ bills about 5% a year through 2026.