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PG&E is starting fires again

Just a few weeks into California's dry summer season, fires linked to PG&E Corp. have already started to break out.

More than 2,000 acres burned in Monterey County this week, with power lines blamed as the cause. Earlier this month, a transformer burst into flames in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and ignited a brush fire. In San Jose, falling PG&E wires may have scorched a house and an acre of land.

The blazes, while small, are early signs of the difficulties California's largest utility faces as it tries to prevent a disastrous conflagration like last year's Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and sent the company spiraling into bankruptcy. PG&E's tens of thousands of miles of power lines are so vast, and the work so extensive, that it has already warned that it's behind on some aggressive safety work. And against windy and parched conditions, some fires are all but inevitable.

In the company's first summer operating in Chapter 11, there are even more obstacles: a shortage of workers for needed upkeep and delays in accessing land, adding more uncertainty to an already precarious situation.

"PG&E has a big challenge ahead of it," said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, who was a member of a state-appointed wildfire commission. "The company has to rethink how it operates its system, more or less, and nobody really has had to do that in a very long time."

While most wildfires aren't sparked by utilities -- people are the ones who usually start them -- electrical equipment has ignited at least six of the 10 most destructive blazes in state history. Last year alone, California power companies PG&E, Edison International's Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas and Electric sparked almost 570 fires, state data show.

PG&E, with the largest service territory, was to blame for more than 400 of those, but the vast majority were small and extinguished quickly. The company said the number of incidents were down from a year earlier.

No matter how many trees they trim and lines they repair, utility executives have warned that completely fireproofing their systems is a next-to-impossible endeavor. As Edison Chief Executive Officer Pedro Pizarro said during a recent call with investors, "Perfection is an unreasonable and unrealistic standard."

The enormity of the task of preventing another catastrophe isn't lost on PG&E and its new leadership, who have been in place for just a couple months. The San Francisco-based utility has undertaken a sweeping plan to inspect, repair and clear trees and brush away from its power lines in high-risk areas, while installing new weather monitoring devices.

The company said this month that it addressed about 1,200 critical safety threats on its grid from its stepped up safety inspections that are nearly complete.

"This work is happening on a scale never seen before in the industry," Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said at the company's annual shareholder meeting last week. Johnson, an industry veteran, has vowed to improve the safety operations of PG&E and restore its credibility as past fires continue to haunt the utility. California regulators said Thursday that they're considering fines and penalties against PG&E for its role in the 2017 blazes that devastated wine country. PG&E shares were down 1.1% as of 11:24 a.m. in New York on Friday.

The company said an emailed statement that it's "taking steps every day to improve the safety and reliability" of its system. Since late last year, PG&E said it has been accelerating and enhancing inspections and repairs of overhead power lines, changing design standards and expanding its wildfire safety program.

But the company also is struggling to find qualified workers for the difficult and sometimes dangerous job of trimming trees. PG&E's agreement with one of its largest contractors for that work, Asplundh Tree Expert, has ended, leaving the company rushing to find replacements.

As of April 25, PG&E had completed more than one-quarter of its targeted tree cutting for this year, according to a filing with state regulators. At the end of May, PG&E said it wouldn't hit its vegetation management targets by June 30 and would update regulators after more reviews.

Chriso Lee, director of operations for a contractor that trims trees for PG&E in the Yosemite area, said he's recruiting workers from as far away as Australia and Puerto Rico. "Finding qualified workers is a huge challenge," he said.

PG&E now has about 3,000 workers cutting trees in the field a day, but would like to have a couple of thousand more, said Ralph Armstrong, senior assistant business manager for a labor union that represents PG&E employees. And the queues of people looking for lineman assignments at the union halls are out the door, he said.

"They are trying to do five years of work in about one year," Armstrong said of PG&E. "It's quite a daunting task."

PG&E also said it has had trouble getting environmental or local government permits to access some land, and has faced resistance from private landowners. After a particularly wet winter, some areas in higher elevations have been inaccessible until recently due to the heavy snowpack, or they're so remote that can only be reached by foot.

In a recognition that the utility can't prevent all fires, PG&E is preemptively shutting power to customers when the risk is high. There is evidence the strategy may be effective: During a recent shutoff of about 22,000 customers north of San Francisco and in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the company found five hazards such as fallen branches lying across conductors.

California's leaders, meanwhile, have also resigned themselves to the fact that fires will happen, and with more frequency, as the effects of climate change deepen. Late Thursday, lawmakers introduced a bill to establish a fund to help utilities deal with their mounting wildfires liabilities. The measure, based on a plan laid out by Governor Gavin Newsom, would be financed with an initial $10.5 billion from the state -- an acknowledgment that the companies will need financial help until they make their grids safer.

"The goal can't be that the electricity system never starts a fire," said Wara of Stanford. "The goal has to be that the electricity system never starts catastrophic wildfires."

A contractor cuts branches from a tree to be cleared away from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) power lines in Nevada City, Calif., on June 12, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris.