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Judge: PG&E blackouts ‘ignored the main problem’ with fire danger

Because the PG&E corporation is a federal offender on probation, it is already facing court action for a wildfire currently under criminal investigation.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Pacific Gas & Electric Company's (PG&E) wildfire safety blackouts are flawed and don’t do enough to protect Californians from deadly wildfires, according to a federal judge probing this September’s Zogg Fire.

That fire killed four people in Shasta County this September, starting right beneath a PG&E power line.

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On Tuesday, US District Judge William Alsup announced new probation terms for PG&E that would order the company to change how it decides where to shut off the power.

“This proposal is made to protect the people of California from yet further death and destruction caused by the Offender’s continuing failure to operate its power grid safely,” Alsup wrote in his order.

Alsup, who supervises PG&E’s probation for its six federal felonies from the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, began investigating the Zogg Fire after CAL FIRE investigators seized parts of a PG&E power line near the fire’s origin point.

The fire sparked only a few months after PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of manslaughter in a Butte County court for killing people in and around the town of Paradise in the 2018 Camp Fire.

“I lost everything in 45 minutes,” said Zach McLeod, whose wife Alaina and daughter Feyla both died in the Zogg Fire while trying to escape the family home in a pickup truck.

Zach was away from home on a grocery run when they died in the Zogg Fire.

The fire also killed two other people in the small community of Igo, Calif, located in hills above Redding.

PG&E is under a criminal homicide investigation, suspected of sparking the fire through failure to properly cut and trim trees near its power line by the fire’s origin point.

By law, power companies are supposed to cut trees away from power lines so they don’t spark fires during windstorms.

“It’s not a matter of landscaping or gardening,” Alsup wrote. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

PG&E previously admitted something shocking to the judge: The tree crews hired by the company didn’t cut all of the trees here that they’d marked.

It’s a problem we’ve documented in other parts of PG&E’s vast monopoly in the course of ABC10’s ongoing FIRE - POWER - MONEY investigation.

If the trees aren’t trimmed, the last line of defense is supposed to be a fire safety blackout.

PG&E shut off the power elsewhere the day of the Zogg Fire, but didn’t shut off the circuit that runs along Zogg Mine Road. The company admitted that the complicated formula it uses to decide where to switch off the power didn’t factor in whether the trees had been trimmed.

“The algorithm ignored the main problem,” Alsup wrote, ordering PG&E to factor its tree work into shutoff decisions for the fire season ahead.

PG&E has to comply with Alsup’s decisions on probation until that sentence runs out in January 2022.

In a written statement, PG&E spokesperson James Noonan referred to the federal judge’s order as “feedback,” while arguing that the company intends to take it “seriously.”

The company has a court date to make arguments about Alsup’s new plan on February 3.

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