Pacific Gas & Electric must answer a series of questions about its late-October public-safety power shut-offs and maintenance of its equipment after a Nov. 4 order by the federal judge overseeing the utility's felony probation case.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in his order said he realized that PG&E "is now rightfully preoccupied with managing its response to the worst of the windstorm-wildfire season." But he gave the bankrupt utility until noon on Nov. 29 to answer a series of questions intended to assess its compliance with the conditions of the probation stemming from the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

Alsup directed PG&E to answer the same set of questions about the late-October shut-off as it did about an earlier Oct. 9-12 shut-off. These include how many trees and limbs fell or blew onto de-energized lines as well as the number of infrastructure failures identified during patrols afterwards, and how many of those tree or branch strikes or infrastructure failures likely would have caused arcing had the lines been energized.

In the Nov. 4 order, Alsup also asked questions about a "jumper," a piece of equipment that failed on a PG&E tower and is being examined as a cause of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that broke out Oct. 23 (see CEM No. 1562). He also asked if arcing or sparking could occur as a jumper cable separates and falls away from an energized transmission line, and under which scenarios sparking or arcing could occur if a jumper becomes disconnected from an energized line.

Other queries by the judge include under which scenarios a jumper could separate during a windstorm, and when the jumper on the Burned Mountain Tower was last inspected. He asked whether there are concerns that other jumpers inspected in the same way could fail.

Alsup also asked how many structures have been destroyed and how many lives have been lost in fires caused by PG&E distribution lines in 2019.

"The court is inclined to expect that the answer for 2019 thus far will be many fewer than for prior years, thanks to the PSPS interruptions, but the court (and the public) would appreciate a more precise answer," Alsup said. He also said a local television station has suggested the PSPS process itself could spark wildfires, and asked PG&E if this had ever happened.

In an Oct. 30 response to Alsup's earlier set of questions about the Oct. 9-12 outage, PG&E said it found 44 instances of vegetation damage that likely would have caused arcing if the lines had been energized based on PG&E's assessment of whether the vegetation was contacting or had contacted the conductor, for example, a tree branch lying on two phases of a conductor; 25 instances of vegetation damage that likely would not have caused arcing, such as the conductor being insulated; and five instances of vegetation damage where PG&E was unable to determine whether arcing would likely have occurred.