SAN FRANCISCO — PG&E told the federal judge handling its probation case that its power lines could have sparked as many as 56 fires by arcing electricity if it hadn't self-imposed power outages to about 2 million people.
After the first round of blackouts to its roughly 738,000 accounts on Oct. 9, US District Court Judge William Alsup asked the company how many cases of arcing power might have occurred, potentially igniting wildfires.
The report shows how widespread the safety crisis with PG&E's lines has become, even as PG&E hopes to calm public anger over the blackouts by claiming that they may have prevented fires. That argument has been undercut by the fact that PG&E power lines left on during a blackout last weekend are being investigated by the state as a possible cause of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which forced 180,000 people to evacuate their homes.
In a court filing Wednesday, the power company said it found 44 cases of trees hitting its power lines that could have caused arcing and another 12 cases where fires could have been cause by PG&E equipment that simply broke in the wind.
PG&E added that it ruled out arcing as a possibility in 51 other cases of line damage and found another eight cases in which it couldn't determine whether the power would have arced.
"Information about how many line strikes (from trees, branches or infrastructure failures) would have caused arcing involves some amount of speculation," PG&E wrote in its filing to the judge. "And is based on PG&E’s best view based on factors such as the vegetation’s location and the damage the vegetation or infrastructure failure appears to have caused."
The power company said it found damage that could have caused arcing in 17 of the 35 counties that were included in the then-unprecedented blackout, from the Bay Area to the Sierra foothills. The counties where PG&E said arcing could have occurred include Alameda, Amador, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Lake, Napa, Placer, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Tehema, Toulumne, and Yuba counties.
COMPENSATING FOR 'HARDSHIP'
Since then, PG&E has enacted two more rounds of blackouts in October, one of which cut the power to roughly 3 million people.
Earlier this week, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson bowed to pressure from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-California) and agreed to pay $100 credits on home power bills, along with $250 credits to small business accounts, to customers who lost power in the Oct. 9 blackout. He cited the company's failing website that left people without key information telling when and where the blackouts would hit as the reason for the reimbursements.
Johnson did not commit to paying credits to the millions of people who lost power in the two additional rounds of blackouts in late October.
"PG&E wants to acknowledge the hardship that the October 9-12 [blackouts] as well as ongoing [blackouts] have caused for the millions of people affected," the power company wrote to the judge on Wednesday. "[PG&E] intends to continue working with all key stakeholders to minimize, to the extent possible, the hardship."
PG&E IS UNDER COURT SUPERVISION FOR CRIMES
PG&E was convicted of crimes as a company in 2016. It is a federal offender serving five years of probation for felonies connected to the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, which killed eight people.
As a result, the company has to answer to a federal judge who's pushed the company to switch off the power during windstorms after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. That fire was caused by a PG&E high-tension line that failed in heavy winds the morning of Nov. 8, 2018.
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