The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

PG&E faces federal probe in Dixie Fire, estimates $1.15 billion in losses from the blaze

Charred buildings and smoldering piles of rubble could be seen across Greenville, Calif., as the Dixie Fire tore through Northern California on Aug. 4. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Federal prosecutors have demanded records from California’s largest public utility related to its handling of the Dixie Fire, which became the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history and is expected to cost the utility $1.15 billion, the company said in a filing Monday.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento served Pacific Gas & Electric a subpoena for the documents Oct. 7, the company said Monday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission — days after the Dixie Fire, which consumed nearly 1 million acres for more than three months, was fully contained last week.

PG&E has previously said its equipment may have played a role in sparking the Dixie Fire in July. The inferno destroyed more than 1,300 structures, including most of the historical mountain town of Greenville, Calif.

Deb Duckett-Morris, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California, declined to comment on her office’s subpoena. PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo told The Washington Post that the utility was cooperating with all investigations and working to make its equipment safer and resolve claims from past wildfires.

“As we’ve shared previously, we believe our actions around the time of the Dixie fire’s ignition show that we are a reasonable operator of our electric system,” Paulo said in a statement. “We remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area and are committed to keeping our customers and communities safe.”

Anatomy of a wildfire: How the Dixie Fire became the largest blaze of a devastating summer

The news of a potential federal probe into PG&E’s role in the Dixie Fire comes as another hit to the already embattled utility. The company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 over legal liabilities from wildfires and emerged last year, has also been criminally charged and sometimes found liable in other wildfires where trees hit their power lines.

In addition to federal prosecutors, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and state prosecutors in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties are also investigating the origin of the Dixie Fire, PG&E wrote in its filing.

The Dixie Fire was the largest blaze of the summer as climate change exacerbated severe storms, floods and fires across the country. Government agencies doled out more than $637 million to fight the Dixie blaze, and PG&E said it was aware of roughly 10 Dixie-related lawsuits filed against it by at least 676 people.

PG&E planned to move its power lines underground in the area where the Dixie Fire erupted but had not yet done so when a maintenance worker with the utility told a dispatcher July 13 that a tree had fallen on a line and “started a fire.” More than nine hours passed between the time PG&E was first alerted to a power outage in the area and when company representatives called 911, PG&E has said in court filings.

How to protect your home from wildfires

PG&E said its estimate of $1.15 billion in costs from the Dixie Fire represents the low end of projected expenses. The exact cost will depend on the cause of the fire, the contents of damaged structures, the number of trees destroyed, personal injuries and the cost of fire suppression, among other factors, the utility wrote. PG&E said it could also be liable for additional costs if a court determines that its equipment was a substantial cause of the blaze.

The utility hopes to cover the expenses from its insurance, customers and the California Wildfire Fund, which was established in 2019 to reimburse public utilities for claims resulting from wildfires.

As PG&E defends itself against charges that its equipment helped start the Dixie Fire, it also faces dozens of criminal charges in connection with the 2019 Kincade Fire, which burned more than 77,000 acres in Sonoma County, and the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people.

Read more:

Climate politics have shifted, and that gives scientists and activists hope

Why at-home coronavirus tests are easy to use and hard to find

Kyle Rittenhouse trial starts with parade of potential jurors saying their minds are already made up