PG&E reports on first shutoff, also will extend fire claims deadline

Monday Oct. 21 was the previous deadline for PG&E wildfire victims to file compensation claims.

PG&E told a federal judge in San Francisco Wednesday that it has identified 56 instances of equipment damage that could have caused fires if power had not been shut off during strong winds in Northern California earlier this month.

The Oct. 9-12 Public Safety Power Shutoff was the first of several electric power shutdowns this month that were intended to prevent wildfires during high winds.

The utility reported to U.S. District Judge William Alsup that it found 44 incidents in which trees or branches fell on electrical lines plus 12 examples of damaged infrastructure that could have caused electrical arcing if the lines had not been deenergized.

Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E's probation in a criminal pipeline safety case, on Oct. 15 ordered the report to be filed by Wednesday.

PG&E said it found the damage in 14 counties, including Contra Costa, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma counties in the Bay Area. 

More than 738,000 households and businesses in more than 30 counties lost power at various times during the Oct. 9-12 shutdown.

The utility's attorneys wrote, "As an initial matter, PG&E wants to acknowledge the hardship that the October 9-12 PSPS as well as ongoing PSPS events have caused for the millions of people affected, and assures the court that it intends to continue working with all key stakeholders to minimize, to the extent possible, the hardship caused by these PSPS events."

In another development, utility representatives told a different federal judge, U.S. District Judge James Donato, on Monday that PG&E plans to extend its previous Oct. 21 deadline for people to file claims in bankruptcy court for harm suffered in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires caused by PG&E equipment failures.

Any extension must be approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali, who is overseeing PG&E's Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

The tentative new deadline is Dec. 20, but lawyers for PG&E and the fire victims are due to discuss a possible further extension and report to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali, who will hold a hearing on the deadline question on Nov. 13.

Lawyers for fire victims have asked Montali for an extension until Jan. 31, arguing in a court filing that victims have been impeded by emotional distress, trauma from the fires and lack of awareness of the deadline.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said Wednesday that utility managers believe the notification process about filing claims has been "broad and thorough," but said PG&E is willing to extend the deadline.

"PG&E remains committed to compensating victims of recent wildfires during the Chapter 11 proceeding," he said.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding enables a company to freeze its debts while developing a financial reorganization plan. PG&E filed for Chapter 11 protection in January, citing billions of dollars of expected liability for the 2017 and 2018 fires. Those fires include the massive Camp Fire in Butte County last year, which killed 85 people.

In connection with the bankruptcy proceeding, Donato has been assigned to estimate the utility's total financial liability for the fires. He is scheduled to begin a two- to three-week estimation hearing on Feb. 18.

Lawyers for the fire victims contend that extending the claim date to Jan. 31 won't interfere with the estimation proceeding and will help experts provide the judge with reasonable estimates of liability.

At present, the bankruptcy court claim process applies only to fires that occurred before PG&E's bankruptcy case began in January 2019, and therefore currently does not include claims from the Kincade Fire now burning in Sonoma County.

Noonan said PG&E and Cal Fire are still investigating the Kincade Fire, and said, "It's too soon to discuss liability for a fire that does not yet have an official determination of cause."

In yet another forum, a jury trial is due to begin in San Francisco Superior Court in January on whether PG&E is liable for the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties, in which 22 people died. 

Cal Fire has concluded that fire was caused by a private electrical system in Calistoga, but a group of fire victims claims PG&E was responsible. Montali allowed the Superior Court trial to proceed as an exception to the bankruptcy court freeze on previous debts, saying that the outcome will aid in the determination of PG&E's total liability.

The Tubbs Fire is the second deadliest California wildfire on record and the deadliest is the Camp Fire.