– [Narrator] This is the Camp Wildfire. On November 8th, 2018,
the fire tore across a rural section of northern California. It was deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. It consumed the town of
Paradise in a matter of hours, forcing its residents to flee in panic. (woman sobbing) – [Woman] Please, God! – [Woman] Please, God, just let us out! – [Woman] Let us get out safe! – [Narrator] An investigation
found that the Camp Fire was caused by a line owned by Pacific Gas
and Electric, or PG&E. It was the latest in a string of fires that ultimately led the
state’s largest utility company to file for bankruptcy,
but with this bankruptcy, it isn’t just shareholders and creditors who have an interest in
the future of the company. Millions of Californians
rely on the utility to keep the lights on,
and some are questioning whether PG&E can be trusted to
do that safely and reliably. That’s because, according to documents reviewed
by the Wall Street Journal, the company knew for years its equipment had the
potential to start fires, yet repeatedly delayed
the necessary upgrades to make some of its lines safer. This is the story of how
PG&E filed for bankruptcy. (copier humming)
(pleasant orchestral music) In 1905, newly-incorporated
Pacific Gas and Electric was competing with other utilities to electrify northern California with power generated high
in the Sierra Nevada. – A vision of a regional power system was something that
really hadn’t been tried in too many other places around the world. The predecessors to PG&E
built a series of dams then built long, high-voltage
transmission lines across the Central
Valley to San Francisco. PG&E emerged really through consolidation of a number of companies to
serve more and more parts of northern California with
increasing demands for energy. ♪ I wash and dry your
clothes, play your radios ♪ ♪ I can heat your coffee pot ♪ Remember, just plug in, I’m Reddy! – [Narrator] But safety
and reliability issues have plagued the utility since the ’90s. In 1996, PG&E settled a
multi-million-dollar lawsuit alleging it tainted drinking water around Hinkley, California. In 2001, the California energy crisis resulted in rolling blackouts and drove the corporation’s utility arm to file for bankruptcy, and in 2010, a PG&E gas pipeline exploded
in San Bruno, California, killing eight people. PG&E was placed on federal probation as a result of the explosion to ensure the utility operated safely in the communities it served, and many of those northern
California communities were growing in rural areas. – A lot of the residential construction that’s occurred over
the last several decades has been in what we would call
the Wildland-Urban Interface, the fringe of the built environment, putting people out into the forest. Since that time, there hasn’t been a lot of new construction of
the backbone system. – [Narrator] Many of the
utility’s transmission towers were constructed in the first
half of the 20th century. Outside of Paradise is a
high-voltage transmission line owned by PG&E. The 56-mile line, known
as the Caribou-Palermo, was built in 1921. Its towers and lines tap
into a hydroelectric system known as the Stairway of Power. PG&E estimated the mean life expectancy of its high-voltage transmission towers was 65 years old, but the
company estimated the average age of all the towers still in service was 68. The oldest towers in the
system were 108 years old. – Equipment like these
high-voltage and low-voltage lines does fail, but the failure
is low-consequence, so you’d have an older transmission line that was nearing the
end of its service life and something would break
during a big winter storm in the Sierra, and when the storm ended, PG&E crews could go out and fix the line. What’s changed is when the
power lines fail in California and the consequences of a failure. – [Narrator] From 2013 to 2019, a historic drought
swept across California, killing millions of trees and greatly increasing the risk of fire. According to a PG&E list obtained by the Wall Street Journal, the Caribou-Palermo was one of the grid’s worst performing circuits. It also ran through areas
that were identified as posing elevated and extreme fire risks. In 2017, PG&E equipment started 18 fires that killed 22 people, according
to state fire officials. According to an internal
presentation from that same year, the company said it needed a plan to replace its steel
structure transmission towers and better manage its equipment to prevent it from causing fires. (quietly tense synth music) On the morning of November 8th, 2018, winds picked up before
sunrise near Paradise. A hook connecting a power line to a Caribou-Palermo tower failed, causing the line to strike the tower and emit sparks that fell to the ground. A few minutes later, a PG&E worker spotted a
small fire near the tower. That fire grew quickly. – Oh, my God!
(muffled chatter) – [Narrator] By eight a.m., local officials had given
the order to evacuate. By 10:45, the fire had
overtaken parts of Paradise. – [Woman] Trying to get out of Paradise. This is bad. – [Man] Oh, my God! – [Officer] Ladder 13, it’s bad! – [Man] Keep going! (tense synth music) (engine rumbling)
(tense synth music) – [Narrator] By six p.m., the fire had completely consumed the town. (dramatic synth music) In the aftermath, the
local sheriff’s office said bodies were found in vehicles, most likely of people who were
trying to escape the fire. Anthropologists and a
forensic dentist were tasked with identifying human remains that sometimes consisted only of a few bone fragments or teeth. (dramatic synth music) For PG&E, the destruction
caused by the Camp Fire was an existential threat. The utility faced thousands
of wildfire claims seeking damages for, amongst other things, wrongful death, personal
injury, and property damage. From October 2018 to January 2019, PG&E’s market value slid from about $25 billion to nine billion. By declaring bankruptcy,
the utility’s strategy was to fold these claims
into a bankruptcy proceeding, allowing the company to
negotiate settlements with all of its creditors,
including the fire victims. A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed the company knew
that 57 of the steel towers on the Caribou-Palermo line
needed hardware replaced and another 49 towers needed
to be replace entirely before the Camp Fire. In 2013, PG&E told federal regulators it had a $30 million
plan to replace equipment on the Caribou-Palermo line, but it repeatedly delayed
the project for five years. It was slated to begin
as late as June 2018, but it didn’t happen.
(dramatic orchestral music) The utility released a
statement in response to the Journal’s reporting,
saying the scheduled work wasn’t maintenance-related and that the tower that
malfunctioned before the Camp Fire wasn’t slated to be part of the project. PG&E later acknowledged in federal court it had long known that
its high-voltage lines could fail and trigger fires,
but said that such fires have historically been relatively rare. – [Michael] I think the
utilities in California recognize that they are operating in a different world today and that, if they cause fires,
they won’t have a business. – [Narrator] In December 2019, state investigators
found a dozen violations the utility had committed in maintaining its
transmission lines and towers. PG&E acknowledges it still has work to do. Since the Camp Fire, it has
inspected all its towers, lines, and substations. It identified 1200 immediate safety risks and another 10,000 less urgent
repairs and is making fixes. It has also committed
to sharing the results of its inspections with state
regulators and the public. PG&E has also permanently
retired the Caribou-Palermo line. – Well, I think in the long run, all of the utilities need
to harden their grid. In the short run, and
maybe even the medium-term, PG&E is also going to be
turning off the power. – [Narrator] Since
2018, PG&E has initiated several weather-related power shut-offs to prevent its equipment
from starting more fires, including one that cut power to nearly 750,000 homes and businesses. PG&E’s future remains uncertain. The utility has reached a
$13.5 billion settlement with fire victims but
faces an major hurdle in appeasing the state of California, which has raised the
specter of a public takeover if PG&E doesn’t enact certain reforms. – If Pacific Gas and Electric is unable to secure its own fate and future, then the state will
prepare itself as back-up for a scenario where we
do that job for them. – People expect that their power
is gonna be on all the time and that the system will
not cause them to be afraid, but that’s kind of where we live right now in northern California,
and until that changes, I think there is gonna be push for much greater oversight of a company. I think that’s a challenging environment for a utility to operate in, particularly one that’s trying
to get out of bankruptcy. (dramatic orchestral music)