Closely Examining How A PG&E Transmission Line Claimed 85 Lives In The 2018 Camp Fire

In 2018, the Camp Fire devastated a huge swathe of California, claiming 85 lives and costing 16.65 billion dollars. Measured in terms of insured losses, it was the most expensive natural disaster of the year, and the 13th deadliest wildfire in recorded history.

The cause of the fire was determined to be a single failed component on an electrical transmission tower, causing a short circuit and throwing sparks into the dry brush below – with predictable results. The story behind the failure was the focus of a Twitter thread by [Tube Time] this week, who did an incredible job of illuminating the material evidence that shows how the disaster came to be, and how it could have been avoided.

Mismanagement and Money

The blame for the incident has been laid at the feet of Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, who acquired the existing Caribou-Palermo transmission line when it purchased Great Western Power Company back in 1930. The line was originally built in 1921, making the transmission line 97 years old at the time of the disaster. Despite owning the line for almost a full century, much of the original hardware was not replaced in the entire period of PG&Es ownership. Virtually no records were created or kept, and hardware from the early 20th century was still in service on the line in 2018.

The failed C hook which caused the 2018 Camp Fire. Note the rust marks on the face of the broken hook, indicating slow, gradual wear prior to failure.

In the hours after the Camp Fire began, investigators working to establish the cause found a broken C hook beneath Tower #27/222 on the Caribou-Palermo line. The C hook is responsible for supporting an insulator, which holds the high-voltage jumper conductor in position. When the C hook broke, the jumper conductor fell, striking the tower, with the resulting short circuit throwing sparks into the vegetation below, starting the Camp Fire. With a PG&E helicopter spotted in the area, investigators worked fast to secure the area as a crime scene, with evidence collected and sent for further analysis.

The resulting grand jury report released in June of 2020 as PG&E entered their guilty plea is damning in its conclusions. The failed left-side C hook, along with the insulator and jumper conductor that started the fire, were all determined to be original components in continuous service since 1921. Additionally, PG&E were found to have virtually no information or records of the equipment on Tower #27/222. Pictures taken of the hook showed significant wear over time, before finally failing on November 8, 2018.

The still-intact right hand side C hook recovered from Tower #27/222. Note the significant wear on the hook. PG&E did not enact a comprehensive inspection and maintenance plan for these components.

Further evidence suggested serious negligence on the part of Pacific Gas and Electric. Despite a lack of records, recovered components of Tower #27/222 indicated prior knowledge of a need for maintenance on the line. Both the left and right side C hooks were mounted on plates bolted to the tower, through holes that showed significant wear. These plates had been installed as the original holes for mounting C hooks on the tower were almost entirely worn through with similar keyhole wear. The wear was caused over many years, as the C hook moved back and forth in the slot due to wind. The fact that the plates had been installed indicated that PG&E knew the C hook attachments needed attention over time. Despite this, PG&E were unable to field any records of when, why, or by whom the plates had been fabricated and installed.

On Tower #27/222, new hanger plates for the C hooks had been bolted on due to wear on the original hanger holes, clearly visible here. Note that even the newer hanger plate shows significant keyhole wear. This indicated that PG&E were at some point aware that the hangers required maintenance, yet failed to take it seriously in the years hence.

The investigation also goes further, revealing a “Run To Failure” ethos within the company, with no regard for potential negative outcomes. It bears remembering that Pacific Gas and Electric were found guilty of six felony charges for the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion. In both cases, investigators found a radically inadequate approach to safety and maintenance, with fatal results. In the case of the Caribou-Palermo line, largely untrained workers were used to perform trivial inspections by helicopter, that fundamentally consisted of a visual check as to whether or not the tower was still standing. Cost cutting was endemic as far as inspection and maintenance was concerned, aiming to increase the operation’s profitability, with little regard to the possible consequences of an equipment failure.

Overall, the failures of Pacific Gas and Electric in the running of the Caribou-Palermo line were multitude and varied. At the very first instance, with almost no records of the infrastructure’s hardware or condition, it was simply not possible for the company to have any idea if there was a problem in the first place. Additionally, with an approach of saving costs on inspections in order to avoid finding problems that need costly solutions, the company all but guaranteed an expensive and dangerous failure. The fact that it took a full 88 years to happen since the company purchased the line is perhaps more down to sheer luck than anything, and the foresight of whoever did an interim replacement of hanger plates at an unknown point in the past. Fundamentally, the company’s active efforts to cut costs and maximise profits, as well as a total disregard for proper engineering practice, resulted in the deaths of 85 innocent people. It’s a disaster we would do well to learn from.

100 thoughts on “Closely Examining How A PG&E Transmission Line Claimed 85 Lives In The 2018 Camp Fire

      1. This should be fun as the thread goes on. Someone is bound to know details about the State interference and permits and vanishing road access and all that. P.S. It ain’t capitalism if there is no competition allowed.

          1. My experience as an engineer is SAFETY FIRST which generally costs very little BUT management sees 100 year old parts and decides that rather than apply modern metal fatigue analysis to determine if 100 years is TIME-UP for these critical metal parts, continue to roll the dice as prior management had because otherwise inspections and part replacements would COST company money and no worker was willing to stick their neck out to have it chopped off since these obviously beefy parts were made to last a century or more… hell, this ONE FALED after 100+ years although most of the rest haven’t… TIME TO DO REAL INSPECTIONS FOR WEAR AND REPLACE OBVIOUS WORN BASED ON VISUAL AND ELECTRO-MECHANICAL INSPECTIONS AND RATE each as 1-100 (1 being newest and best replacement for not-that-bad existing part [ie. 0=failed already, #1=has to be replaced, #2=reinspect for replacement in 5 years, #3 6yrs, etc.

        1. > It ain’t capitalism if there is no competition allowed

          Yes it is. If they are a private corporation leveraging capital to own something to make profits, it is capitalism. If those profits are the sole metric by which the company is judged, in order to attract more private capital investors, it is capitalism.

          The presence of competition might maybe stifle some of capitalism’s worst excesses, but it in no way changes the root incentives of the overarching system.

          1. This is crony capitalism. They are protected by the P U C. When they can sue you in court and then claim you have no standing in court there are serious problems. Pacific Gas And Electric v. Zumalt case CVCS07-0696 Sutter County 2007.

        2. And maybe there doesn’t need to be competition allowed, given the main motivator of “competition” is extracting as much money as possible from something on a scale of months, while spending as little money on it as they can get away with (and if the fines for killing 80+ people are less than the amount they would have had to spend on maintenance, that’s a win).
          It’s possible to have state-owned utility infrastructure and not immediately become a Soviet-style communist hellscape.

          1. When those that fail pay with their life…. the system cleans up almost instantly.
            Just start hanging the corporate parasites…. watch how fast the rest start behaving.

          2. True. It takes a few years.

            The state is a business just the same. They collect taxes and buy votes to stay in power, so they have the same cost-benefit calculation as to how much they want to maintain the infrastructure, and how much they can get away with before people notice they’re not serving the public well.

            One part is, when the state-owned utility messes up and kills people, the state is not going to sue itself like it would a private company. The state is the strongest authority to even investigate the matter, and it’s not going to turn against itself.

          3. IMO the problem is the corporate format. If the transmission line were privately owned, by a actual person or partnership, they would be facing 85 manslaughter counts and spending the rest of their lives in prison. The statutory person fiction shields corporate owners and managers from criminal negligence which would apply in any other situation but for the corporation’s charter having been filed with the state of California. California’s AG should indite all PG&E managers and shareholders as co-conspirators in the manslaughter. This would, at least, force a rethink of the get-out-of-jail-free corporate veil.

          4. Reality Bytes: “Just start hanging the corporate parasites…. watch how fast the rest start behaving.”

            I would say more like this: “Watch how fast the rest starts initiatives to behave better, but slowly cutting them away again through budget cuts.”. Often within a year.

            The budget cuts are the problem. I feel that there is some corporate law of nature here…

            Budget cuts are solutions to real problems, but at some point the budget cuts themselves become the problem. There is a tipping point.

          5. That’s not the goal of competition. If it was, companies would just make everything cost infinite money. The goal is to offer the best product for the lowest amount of money. People can decide how much they are willing to pay for something and influence the market that way. Capitalism is 100% about consent. If a customer is willing to buy and a seller is willing to sell, why should that exchange not be allowed?

      2. Public utilities are not capitalism, Hence the words public and utility. But I’m sure the Russian safety record of electric power plants is much better, take Chernobyl for example.

        1. Chernobyl killed 31 people directly, the Camp fire killed 85. According to authorities, an additional 4,000 were killed by after effects of the fallout, and I would bet my hat that the Camp fire smoke and air quality effects could cause a couple thousand more deaths over the next 20 years. These two incidents seem closer in casualties than you might think at first glance.

          1. You’re using statistics that downplay the numbers. Many raise the official toll to 59. If you watch the Chernobyl series, you can see how many people were exposed to toxic radiation just to contain the meltdown.

            Wildfires, on the other hand, happen whether or not a power line sparks them. Currently, they are caused by transients because of widespread unrest due to the COVID economy. In other words, without the threat of wildfires which is persistent, the utility company wouldn’t be creating a threat by it’s existence or negligence alone. This cannot be compared to a nuclear meltdown in terms of long-term fallout; Chernobyl includes radiation because radiation is only caused by a nuclear meltdown.

    1. >Some things do not have to produce profits

      If it’s a private business, then some amount of profit is always necessary to build up capital against risks and to fund expansion and other future costs. If you operate hand-to-mouth, you’ll go bankrupt in the next downturn.

      Public services that are allowed to run at a loss usually turn into spiraling money sinks, because when you remove the requirement to at least break even, politicians and the public start to use it as a boondoggle. People demand money to be spent, but then don’t have any clear metric of performance as to whether the money actually does anything.

      For example, how do you measure how safe your infrastructure is? You can spend endless amounts of money for “what if?” situations and corner cases that will never actually happen – which is nice for the people who are paid to implement those measures, so they keep arguing you have to keep paying. On the other hand, the politicians start to look for ways to cut cost anyways because they want to spend the money to buy votes elsewhere. Kinda like the public water infrastructure in Paris, where they installed fountains dispensing club soda along the streets to please the constituents. Surely there were more urgent issues that needed addressing and funding, but for the administration, the foremost issue is how to get re-elected.

      1. That would seem to point to a solution whereupon regulation of industries is kept isolated from elected officials. Managed by career government workers, perhaps following a clear set of mandates & a well thought out structure.

        1. “Regulation” in the sense of independent state agencies making up rules and decisions on the spot even if by some set mandate, leads to a style of governance that is harmful for the economy because of the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the rulings (regulatory risks), and affords too much power to the state.

          There is law, and there is regulation. Law is a public matter, while regulation is not democratically accountable, so the bureaucrats inevitably form a state within a state with their own rules and law regardless of what constraints you set them. This then becomes captured by the same industries that they’re trying to regulate through lobbying and insider deals. Un-elected career bureaucrats are easily corrupted.

          Moral of the story is, this is a wicked problem that has no solutions that aren’t also problems in themselves:

      2. Profit is necessary to maintain the equipment used in the operation of a business. If there’s a net balance in income and expenses, then it’s not possible to do maintenance, or it slowly gets less and less because there’s no money available to purchase any replacement equipment and parts.

        Any cost increase over time, and there always is, can put such a company out of business, especially if raising the price of their product or service causes a drop in sales that more than offsets the price increase.

        A lot of companies have gone down that way throughout the history of this world.

        However, with this power line, doing so little maintenance on the towers was flat out criminal negligence. PG&E possibly considered the line not profitable enough to cover the cost of checking everything and replacing worn parts with new as needed. But what they apparently didn’t consider was that applying upgrades to improve efficiency and reliability could over some years pay for itself through reducing further maintenance needs.

        Instead PG&E chose to do absolutely nothing other than at some point drill holes in the support arms to bolt on new hanger brackets, while apparently keeping the old and worn hooks which should have all been replaced at that time. If the hooks with 25% or more wear through had all been replaced it probably would’ve been another 50 years or more before one got worn to the point of breaking.

    2. But PG&E can be held accountable and fined. A state power company can’t – it’s the state holding itself accountable, which – if an investigation is needed – it’s already failed at. And who can be punished? Who will fine the state? Even if someone could, it’d be the taxpayer paying for it.

      Note that this isn’t free market capitalism – there’s no competition on these companies, they’re effective monopolies. A system whereby they have to re-bid for the franchise in small segments every year would be idea.

    1. Add in horrid underbrush and dead tree management (decades of fuel built up) and it was an inevitable disaster. Funds that should have gone to maintenance were also spent on state mandated projects and political contributions – not just pad profit margins. And I’ve often wondered if the towers suffered as much damage as the heavily plinked signs I’d see in that area. There’s lots of blame and responsibility to go around besides PG&E.

      1. Please, not the “rake the forests” argument. Soils are ecosystems that must maintain a pretty fragile balance. Once you start removing organic material it’s only a matter of time before that soil can no longer support life.

        1. Jeeez. Not the ‘not the “rake the forests” argument’ again. In a fire prone environment you do NOT want the soil under a power line to “support life”. So you “rake” under the power line and for added safety you cut fire breaks on both sides of the line corridor. PG&E was not doing this either because of dumb California “Green” laws, or because they were negligent. If it’s the latter, PG&E gets fined – big time. If it was the former, California just continues to burn.

        2. Other countries keep brush buildup cleared out of their forests, and don’t have massive wildfires. The “green” do nothing policies are the cause of the fires in the USA.

    2. Coming from someone that knows the area well, I can tell you that this fire would have started 40 years ago given the same cause. My parents lost their home in Yankee Hill which is closer to the origin than Paradise. It is very common for the late summer and early fall brush in this area to be dangerously dry and a major fire risk. While climate change is very real, using the phrase as a blanket root cause for a risk that has existed for decades is inaccurate and misleading.

      Also, on Butte County’s website, you can review Water Inventory reports from 2016 that provide additional data for rainfall and temperature patterns back to 1981 and well depth data to 1956 in the Climate and Hydrology sections. Some of the data we are seeing in the past 10 years matches very closely to data in the late 80s and early 90s, so this fire risk is not a new topic.

      PG&E’s mismanagement and lack of maintenance is the definitive root cause. Factors related to repeated seasonal cycles of below average rainfall and above average summer temperatures did contribute, but these cycles have existed since the term climate change was just called the greenhouse effect. It’s all the same, humans are not being kind to this planet and we are beginning to see some effects. However, every single event that is “worse” than the previous is not necessarily proof of climate change. We had a crazy hot summer this year here in Northern California which definitely contributed to wildfire activity, but it was still not as hot as the summer of 1988. We had over 30 days over 100 back then; we average about 15 days over 100.

      1. With the deepest sympathy and respect to those impacted by this event, and without defending the utility company, I ask was not just as possible for the same event to occur due to, say, a lightning strike or broken down vehicle fire? Where the conditions the problem, and then with those conditions was the initiating event only one of many possible?

        As an engineer I am well aware of the difficulty in balancing where and how capital is spent, often when the budget has already been decided without many of the factors adequately considered.

        Without knowing what was coming, would the people who used that electrical power been happy to pay double for it? Or even 10% more but also had 10 days a year without any electricity. You might have found a competitor could have seen an opportunity to buy them out and test the market with even lower quality or less maintained equipment. Would they have been happy not living there at all and spending their life in an apartment, with a risk like this almost zero relatively speaking?

        In this context I find the headline a little misleading, it creates the impression that there was no other way this could have ever happened when the conditions seemed ripe any one of a number of man made or natural causes to initiate it. It is like saying cigarettes killed a million people last year, implying they never would have died if they hadn’t smoked. Some may have died relatively soon anyway from other causes and all would have died eventually. Some might have even said they would rather live a slightly shorter life with the enjoyment of a cigarette now and then, but regret it if they found out in their cause slightly shorter was actually 50%.

        Risk is all around us, often unseen and un-thought of until an outcome precipitates, and then it is easy to say things like, “but we could have had helicopters standing by all summer to rescue people like this”, but what if that meant there was no money left for a local hospital and school?

        PS : I live in Australia and I am exposed to this risk every summer.

        1. The culpability here is that PG&E had to know about the badly worn hooks because at some point they installed new parts to replace the badly worn mounts, but re-hung the worn hooks on the new mounts rather than replacing them. If they replaced any hooks at that time, it must have been only the ones that were nearly cut in two already.

          They even helpfully left the old wear evidence right next to the new mounts so that how bad the old mounts had been allowed to get before being addressed could be seen.

          This could have been prevented by numbering each tower then having a page for each tower with notations on each hook location with its wear status, replacement date if it had been replaced, and for hooks not replaced, the required future inspection date, or predetermined replace it anyway even if it doesn’t look that bad date.

          Cost to collect that information and actually do the work would have been much less than the damage from the fire.

          1. Their whole system of maintenance in some rural areas is when it falls down then fix it, but try to blame and bill the property owner. The transmission line through my property was acquired from Bay Cities in 1905. there are poles out there that are older than me. Only now are they taking a close look and making needed repairs. Wonder why now ? Because they were forced to or no government bail out.

        2. You are 100% correct. Similar levels of fire risk have existed every single year for decades. My perspective was only from this particular event. Just as a careless camper can start a fire through negligence, this one was PG&Es gross negligence. The risk of a tragic fire at this level would still exist even if PG&E replaced 100% of their infrastructure; it is just that the root cause would be something different.

  1. I can honestly say this would not happen in a UK utility. Everyone is very aware that long prison sentences are given for safety failures resulting in deaths.

    Can the state withdraw PG&E’s licence to operate as a utility?

          1. So when they fall and are hanging there in a harness, what is the recovery plan?

            Perfectly healthy person has about 20 minutes hanging in a harness before you start running the risk of dying from the impacts it has to your body.

            These guys do this for a living, all of the practicalities and problems would have been considered literally millions times all over the world, and this is still how they do it with best balance of economy and risk, there is no zero risk.

            Billions of people walk inches from speeding cars every days without a second thought of what happens if the driver faints or has a heart attack, if they are lucky they are protected by an adequately high kerbing.

          2. GS said:
            “Perfectly healthy person has about 20 minutes hanging in a harness before you start running the risk of dying from the impacts it has to your body.”

            Not if they are used properly.

      1. So when they fall and are hanging there in a harness, what is the recovery plan?

        Perfectly healthy person has about 20 minutes hanging in a harness before you start running the risk of dying from the impacts it has to your body.

        These guys do this for a living, all of the practicalities and problems would have been considered literally millions times all over the world, and this is still how they do it with best balance of economy and risk, there is no zero risk.

        Billions of people walk inches from speeding cars every days without a second thought of what happens if the driver faints or has a heart attack, if they are lucky they are protected by an adequately high kerbing.

      2. Who? The residents who filled the exit routes with rubbish? The fire brigade who kept telling people it was safe to remain? The company who used materials which are perfectly safe in the right context? The government building regulations? The government building inspectors?

        Of course no one is held accountable – the state can’t hold itself accountable.

        1. It looks like the CEO of the cladding company will be prosecuted. The enquiry is still in progress but he was the one who gave specific “expert” advice about the type of cladding to be used.

          Probably another year of enquiry though.

    1. All you have to do is look at the amount of money that goes into lobbying and political campaigns from P G and E at the state level to figure out why the license hasn’t been pulled. Just look at the amount of money P G and E donated the alma mater of head of the states Public Utilities Commission.

  2. In this case the most problematic issue I see is not the operating company failing at the most basic control and maintenance, but an administration that has permitted such a thing with lack of control and regulations of such companies… it speaks much of what could be the current situation with other companies and what could happen in the short future….

    I’m pretty sure in most countries this would never happen just because such companies are forced to give yearly audit reports about infrastructure integrity and must obey some ISO standards which are controlled by state regulatory offices as well as wider agencies, for giving the example of European structures.

    I bet this is the current major issue with US right now, with infrastructures like bridges, railways, dams, etc… not being maintained for a very long time due to “other priorities” like immediate political returns. If the next president handles this in the background, future would be far more secure in terms of catastrophic accidents.

    1. “I’m pretty sure in most countries this would never happen”

      There are what 186? countries on this planet, “most” would include “3rd world” countries as found in Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America.
      The electrical infrastructure I’ve seen outside the US and Europe makes me think your statement is not true.

    2. Ponte Morandi (bridge) was in Italy…”was” being the key word…
      MV Sewol – South Korean.
      Costa Concordia – Italian.
      MS Estonia – Estonian.
      Eschede derailment – German.
      All could have been prevented if everything was done “by the book”, yet they weren’t and it resulted in a substantial body count. I could keep adding more, but I hope you understand my point. “Nanny state” will solve nothing, there has to be natural motivation to care about safety, it must come from within, not from from outside.

      1. There are strong cultural influences, Japan Rail has an extremely impressive safety record, mainly because of cultural factors combined with extremely good engineering (another culturally imp[acted filed).

        Most countries that might achieve such a record are highly collectivist, an opposite of the prized characteristic of American society of being individualistic. Some people might not like to give up this “Amerrican way” for such hard to define benefits.

        The interesting measure, of many, is the power distance index – how likely you are to tell your boss or elder to go jump when something dangerous or stupid is suggested. Japan has one of the highest PDI, along with Korea and other collectivist nations, Australia and New Zealand have the lowest, where blind respect for authority is a characteristic viewed as naive, to be suspicious of, or indicating being dim witted.

        1. Japan rail employees commit suicide if anything goes wrong. (IIRC a driver committed suicide for inconveniencing people by the train being early). That’s not a great model for how to run things! And it’s certainly a cultural not political thing.

        2. Actually Japan have a very very bad safety record due to the strict management of the personal.

          This is a great example on a driver there was a little late and ended in tragedy.
          There is many many smaller and bigger acidents and overall it put japan in as one of the most
          unsafe in the world.
          Also the errors in more than 95 % cases is human error typically because of delays.
          Japan trains must arrive at second and leave at second or the driver will be severely punished.
          This of course lead to the most stressed drivers in the world…
          Japan train culture ?
          NO THANKS …
          It’s the worst in the world when it come to human errors.
          In India , africa ect it’s mostly mechanical failures due to very old or bad serviced equipment.

  3. Also important to point some blame at city/state/federal regulators. Seems as though even a basic inspection program by any number of agencies could have caught this type of systemic neglect. But my guess is this is one of those industries which has become self-regulated, which has become popular in this country. Aircraft manufacturing, food production, pharmaceuticals, etc. So much of our regulatory oversight is now basically the agency saying, “You good?” and the company saying, “Yep, we’re good.”

  4. Actually people lines can cause sparks for no less than a bazillion reasons. Sure you can point a finger at this failed part but do you really want to spend the money to update transmission lines to guaranteed sparkless operation? What about mother natures sparks from the sky. Holding PG and E as solely responsible is just to make people feel good. Climate change is here, those forests are gonna burn every summer. Solution is to do the proscribed burns when the weather suits to remove the fuel load. And maybe large firebreaks around communities. Quadrupling everyone’s electric bill will not fix it.

    1. Climate change is not the cause of the constant massive Cali fires, forest mismanagement is the cause.
      Decades of it, just like the story shows decades of transmission line maintenance neglect lead to failure.
      Blaming climate change makes absolutely zero sense other than being a leftist whining point and on top of that
      if the gov’t can’t manage the forests there what makes you think they can manage the climate?

      1. This has nothing to do with leftists or leftism. The forest management practices of leaving things as they are go back over 100 years. Not to mention you’re talking about billions of dollars of resources to carry out whatever new forest management practices will be necessary to mitigate future fire disasters.

        Also, 60% of california’s forests are private or federally managed. So as much fun as it is for you ignorant bozos to blame calfornia for any of this, it’s not that simple.

        Climate change isn’t wholly to blame, but it certainly causes fires to spark easier and burn longer.

  5. I read about this, and I’m sceptical of the impulse to blame PG&E.

    The town that burned is a wooden tinderbox, if the electrical supply posed a disproportionate risk of fire to the town, the disproportion was due to the setup, not the risk. Electrical faults aren’t the only way fires can start*, and as irresponsible as it is to allow fire hazards near tinderboxes, it’s as irresponsible to allow tinderboxes in the first place.


    If it wan’t profitable to properly inspect & fix the towns power lines, could PG&E raise prices to cover it, or withdraw service?

    1. No, they can’t just withdraw service or simply decide to raise rates. Both are regulated activities… And rate payers at some point have “invested” in the installation of those facilities.

      That’s part of the deal of a regulated “monopoly”… Just as maintaining the physical plant is.

      Plain and simple… PG&E played the odds and skirted the rules. People died as a result.

  6. And in the meantime California the most progressive State in the Nation is decommissioning all of its Nuclear Plants. The San Onofre plant where I was a sub-Contractor is gone and Canyon Diablo is next. The Ivanpah Solar Electric generating system, the largest in the world was closed, and owned by PG&E. The plant was not producing enough electricity for a payback of the 2.2Billion usd invested, not to mention the environmental impact to the local bird population.

  7. I am a career maintenance guy (now retired), and every company I ever worked for suffered from the “maintenance doesn’t make money so we don’t need it/want it/support it”. Budget cuts were a constant factor in whether or not I was able to perform my job properly or even do it at all (I refused to cut corners where safety is concerned).

    1. Weirdly enough, same issue when I worked phone support for Compaq/HP decades ago. They sold the product with phone support, but the finance people hated that there was a whole department(support) that did not make money.

      It started during the Compaq years, but accelerated after the HP purchase: we kept being pushed more and more to sell during support calls. I hated it and didn’t try(I would sell if there was a reason to, but only because it helped the customer), probably why I was in the first round of layoffs.

      Drove away customers, made my job harder and overall just achieved nothing. My wife has similar stories from working support for a large telephone company.

      The top execs see a big negative sign on an entire department and just cannot handle it. Even though they sold that support as part of the sales process, that team get’s to keep all the positive income on their balance sheet.

      Support/maintenance should be billed to the departments that sold the original service if you want to balance the sheets. If sales is not charging enough to cover their ongoing liabilities, then they should be punished for it, not the people providing the service that was paid for.

      1. Ah G42, I hear you loud and clear. I too worked for a large industrial electrical manufacturer, with exactly the same stories. Sales sold the whole “after sales maintenance and support” package to customers, but the revenues earned as such, only trickled down into maintenance and service departments that were continually starved of much needed investment. We too were pushed to generate service contracts with existing customers etc. while working in the best interest of the customer and providing a high level of service was aggressively opposed if it was going to cost one red cent! My immediate management were generally always very good, but those above them should have been sacked.

        They hollow out good companies over time as they seek to put every Dollar they possibly can on the bottom line of their spreadsheets, effectively selling out the brand that took decades to be built by actual engineers and people with sound business sense.

    2. Many American school districts do that. Years ago in Emmett, Idaho the school district insisted it just had to have an all new high school building. The parents demanded and got an inspection tour. What was found was some amount of repairs and maintenance needed to be done, which the district hadn’t been spending the maintenance budget on.

      The roof needed redone, there was a hole rotted through a floor thanks to the deferred roof maintenance, and all the fire doors needed replaced to meet the latest fire code requirements. IIRC the district either already had all the money needed and didn’t need a big new tax levy for a new school, or only needed a small, short term tax levy to fil out the repair cost not coverable by the existing maintenance funds.

      Didn’t stop the school district whining about “needing” a new building and a few years later they got one rather than adding onto and further updating the existing high school.

      Meanwhile, in Europe, there are school building that have been in continuous use for hundreds of years. Fix things *immediately* as they need it and the cost of keeping a building (or anything else) in good condition is rarely very costly in large lumps of money.

      1. Meanwhile in Europe, our school buildings are falling apart, I’m afraid. The push to private academies has injected new capital to some schools, but it’ll fall into disrepair.
        But at least all the crappy buildings have smart boards in every class room.
        And our school pays big money to an agency to run their Facebook page to “reduce risks” of being sued for anything.
        That’s where the investment has gone.

        1. Thanks Dan for offering your experience. These issues seem to be due to how much money is available, as opposed to corruption (although corruption is inevitably a problem). Both systems are publicly funded. I feel what you are describing in Europe are the limits on free speech, which would be the fundamental problem to consider. Letting a building fall apart and building a new one might be a waste of material, but isn’t always a waste of money. It depends on how much has changed since the original structure was built, how the electric and plumbing (fire) systems are designed, what sort of insulation is used, etc. It’s usually harder and more expensive to renovate than to build new. Plus, the new building fixes more problems than a renovation can.

    1. I would suspect it’s evident from the amount of wear on the original hanging hole. The original owner only owned it for 9ish years, so it appears the wear is more then 9 yeas worth on that hole. I’m not an expert in this area, so I could be wrong here.

    1. According to the thread, in CA law to be charged you have to have knowingly ignored the threat. PG&E had set themselves up so that there was no indication of any problem, so none of them could be charged. PG&E was fined $4 million for their part in the fire.

      This seems completely strange to me. PG&E pled guilty to negligent homicide, but none of the *people* in the company are guilty of this crime. Apparently you can set your company up in the most negligent way possible, but if you have no reason to suspect that someone will be harmed then you can’t be charged.

      This also seems like an incentive *not* to do proper inspections and maintenance, because if a problem *does* turn up you’re liable for the consequences until you fix it.

      Better to simply “not know”.

  8. Articles like this, and of discernable quality, are one of the small things in the world that give me faith in humanity’s intelligence back.

    I find no hack here- just a good writer.

    Articles like this, and the biopic on little known inventors and people of science really gain my respect for the community here, the writers, and those that run the site.

    And furthermore, this makes how the fire started clear and easy to understand for any layman. Bravo on many levels.

  9. The state of CA is to blame as well, at least to a small extent. Heavy regulation of the company (a monopoly on power supply in most areas) and rate limits means less money for maint. Yeah capitalism but something has to give under such oppressive rules and unfortunately total disregard for upkeep is the result.

    Also, I’m not sure that a company with no money for upkeep and safety at baseline is supposed to come up with the massive pile of cash after getting sued for billions. They already did/are declaring bankruptcy.

    1. Check records on the bonuses executives have received over the years. Check records on funds received for repair of specific equipment (San Bruno) and where the money went instead of the repairs. Check the cost of many of the repairs against the ability to pay for them. Check that it is the company that knowingly, consciously refuses to repair and/or replace equipment that will cause billions of damages when it fails not because they are psychic but because this pattern has repeated for years playing out the same way because they prefer to spend billions on bonuses for themselves leaving themselves to “appear” not to have enough to compensate anyone other than themselves. The same company that gave an additional 3 million to Johnson and gave good bye money of 2.5 million to Geisha Williams on her way out and bonuses to execs THE NIGHT BEFORE CLAIMING BANKRUPTCY….that gave 130 million in bonuses to employees AFTER filing for Bankruptcy…you mean how can a company so oppressively broke that they could not pay for safety upkeep, possibly pay for the fires caused by spending the money for safety on themselves, pay the victims of the fires anything? Gosh, just don’t know. By the way, they did not claim bankruptcy because they didn’t have money. They filed for bankruptcy to hide out in that courtroom so they did not have to face the criminal courtroom and litigation and a jury.

  10. Utilities used to be regulated in this country. They didn’t have to answer to shareholders. This wasn’t even that long ago.
    I’ve been in the power industry my whole career. PG&E is not the only company getting squeezed in this unregulated environment. Energy companies exist in a natural monopoly. As such, they should return to a regulated energy system that isn’t run by bankers. Utilities used to have engineers become CEOs. Now the C-suite is made of people who have never touched a piece of power equipment or even step foot in a power plant. Not good!

  11. For Heavens Sake!
    It was actually ” the camp rd (road) fire which the media dropped almost immediately in favor of “the camp fire” after pge press releases started using the later. I talked with a number of people at the time who literally thought it was caused by a campfire and had no idea pg&e was involved.

    As to has a corporate culture of greed that rivals that of large banks and game developers.
    In the San Bruno gas pipe explosion, it was shown that the section of gas main that failed, killing innocent people, had been flagged for needing replacement on several occasions by different inspectors over the course of years. DESPITE THE FACT THAT THE UTILITY CHARGED FOR AND WAS PAID TO DO SAID MAINTENANCE.
    In fact, if you look at your bill every month ( if you are unfortunate enough to have them as a utility) there is a never ending stream of rate hike request ( all of which eventually get passed by the CPU) many of which are flagged for maintenance. The idea that the UTILITY failed to maintain their equipment due to lack of funds or due to overbearing regulations is HILARIOUS.

    pg&e profits have been in the hundreds of billions. Look at the returns investors have reaped and the bonuses given to managers. There wasn’t a lack of money for maintenance , it just went elsewhere. And that is the real question that nobody seems to want to ask or answer.


    The question is not whether the company is guilty but Who in the company is guilty.

    There are so many sick sides to this story. One of them is that a “company” was charged, plead guilty and was fined. A company. How the fuck does that work?? How does a “company” plead?
    The “company” didnt arbitrarily decide to fuck off maintenance and pocket the money, people did. And those people need to be brought to justice. Along with everyone who ran interference for them.

    The sickest part is that DESPITE destroying an entire community and killing nearly a hundred people and screwing up countless lives for the love of money, the “company” hasn’t even made restitution to all its victims 2 years later.

    As for them not knowing that failing to maintain electric and natural gas delivery systems and infrastructure could result in death, destruction and injury is just about the funniest god damn notion I have heard since someone suggested they didn’t have the money…

    In case anyone forgot, the wine country was torched the year before, killing dozens and causing great loss. By whom? Yep. pg&e.

    The bankruptcy judge was bought off or he would have held the principle managers of that company to be held accountable. Public utilities commission is staffed by ex power company personnel or was.

    I wonder how many more people are gonna die before these assists are stopped and imprisoned.

  12. Get a little frustrated, being I’m an ex firefighter from that area. Everyone wants to blame PG&e, when the fact is owners of property would not even let firefighters or PG&e staff on their property to cut anything. I’ve had guns pulled on me out there because we were there to make sure they were safe! People need to be cognizant of the fact that the state and the people that lived in that area had a lot to do with what happened in that fire! If anyone would have taken it seriously years before this would have never happened, but when the state gets involved and says you can’t clear cut anything you can’t do anything to prevent fires that’s a joke. And when people won’t let you on their property to do anything and don’t do anything for themselves that’s a joke! Please stop blaming PG&e for people that won’t take care of their properties and refuse help! People need to get their facts straight before they open their mouths because everyone thinks it was nothing but PG&e’s fault when there was a lot more to blame!

  13. Yes, the fire was started by PG&E’s mismanagement. An argument has been made that they have not been able to keep up on the maintenance due to forced investments into “green energy” and other fallacies like that. All of that mandatory billions of investment into heavily polluting technologies like solar left the infrastructure at risk. After that, the spark that did occur should have fizzled out but for bad forestry mismanagement going back a century. It has been mentioned before but the real issue is that California is meant to burn. There are records showing that the natives would regularly set fires so that the brush would burn regularly and not turn into a firestorm. They were much smarter on forest management than the entire collective of the previous century of politicians have been.

  14. I believe that there are a lot of projects out there that can help prevent massive fires. Part of it is proper land management. When we have an unbalanced ecosystem, everything suffers. California killed off most of it’s alpha predators roughly 100 years ago, this coincides with the time scale in which it takes for desertification to start happening due to such drastic changes. What happens is you then get an overabundance of animals like deer or other foragers, that destroy the forest floor, this disrupts the life cycle of mycellium which holds a massive amount of water per it’s size right in the soil, helping to curb the forest drying out during draughts and the like.

    long story short, there ARE ways we can buffer against these fires, but it takes time, and we need to carefully put into place mechanisms that help balance the ecosystem. There’s no way we will ever stop forest fires entirely, and forest fires happen no matter what sometimes for some circumstances. Our infrastructure needs to be the LAST thing we should be worried about, because we have direct control over it and it has a monetary input large enough to maintain it properly. So please regulate them into better maintenance, via setbacks, required benchmarks, etc. And pay for the inspection crews through your taxes, none of this ‘we’re a corporation and we’ll self regulate’ bull crap.

    For anyone who wants to know more about how to help create and balance these ecosystems, you can spend a lifetime learning, but learning from the success of others is a great place to start.

    etc, etc, etc.

    We have solutions to a lot of these issues, and we have had them literally right under our feet since time immemorial. We also have record after record from our archaeology that shows the same exact failures of past civilizations, over and over and over again.

    Feel powerless? You are not. Start a garden, put it in the front yard loud and proud, learn how to compost all your waste and sequester all of that carbon in your own yard. It’s not super difficult and gardening has a correlation with people who live very long lives. You can sequester TONS of carbon each year into your garden AND you can reduce your dependence on one of the biggest polluters in the world, commercial agriculture and shipping food around the world. And when you have a masterful garden, you can share that success with the neighbours and teach them about how to offset their carbon footprint and eat healthier at the same time. A few tons of carbon here and there might not seem like a lot, however when you multiply that by millions or billions, the scale of effect is massive.

    It’s high time we get back in touch with the natural world around us.

    Happy carbon hunting.

  15. I have an even better idea.

    Liquidate The Fleishhacker Foundation in SF to pay for remediation of all difficulties with this public infrastructure. After all, that’s the family that built it then palmed it off onto the public after walking away with moneybags.

    They profited richly off of throwing this infrastructure together to power their speculative endeavors…then leaving the public holding the bag for its maintenance. But everyone blames PG&E for trying to keep 15 simultaneous bubbles inflated with electrons using century old technology…when there’s always trillions of dollars available somehow for pronoun workshops from HR and publicly funded sex change operations for children and million-dollar-workups in the ER for illegal aliens who cut each other up and welfare for cheap labor for global corporations who undercut working families’ incomes…

    …but never ten bucks for the engineers and infrastructure workers who keep begging for a pittance to keep things running and warning of the problems that are piling up because of infrastructure neglect (i.e., living off of old capital…in this case infrastructure…just like the Fleishhackers today live off their grandparents’ bling).

    California is, always was, and always will be a Cadillac Desert of shysters, scam artists, child exploiters, and useless eaters whose only excellence is in extending the Seven Deadly Sins in ways even Dante couldn’t have imagined.

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