The Fire in Paradise and the Criminal Liability of PG&E

Fire in Paradise

PBS Frontline (2019)

Film Review

This Frontline documentary concerns the November 8, 2018 wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise (pop 50,000) in Northern California. It provides a minute by minute account of a small brush fire ignited by a faulty PG&E transmission tower that became a fire storm in 45 mph winds.

It’s rapid and patchwork spread made it impossible for firefighters to do much mroe rescue residents and assist them in evacuating

According to filmmakers, PG&E considered shutting the grid down in view of high wind speeds but decided against it. At present, the Butte County district attorney is still weighing criminal charges against the company for “reckless arson.”

Most PG&E transmission towers have a life expectancy of 65 years, but many are over 100. Malfunctioning high voltage lines has caused 100s of California wildfires in the last few years. The company has already experienced one criminal conviction for a 2010 gas explosion. This is in addition to $3 billion in fines for wildfires caused by transmission towers and lines.

At present they face $10.5 billion in liability claims for the fire that destroyed Paradise. In July they filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of multiple liability claims.

The film also suggests police and Cal fire erred in failing to evacuate Paradise residents sooner. Because there is only one road leading down the valley, Paradise, located in the Sierra Madre foothills, can only be safely evacuated by zones. A number of people burned to death in their cars, thanks to the gridlock caused by thousands of residents trying to evacuate simultaneously.

In all, 85 people died in the Paradise fire. A week after the evacuation, the winds died down sufficiently for 5,000 firefighters from around California to begin efforts to put it out. It wouldn’t be totally extinguished until winter rains started two weeks after the fire.