San Bruno fire, PG & E, and the fire of 1906

The devastating, tragic and unsettling fire in San Bruno (just south of San Francisco, for those not super intimately familiar with the Bay Area) last week led very swiftly to a regulatory agency demanding that good ole PG & E check all its pipes for safety, since a failed so-called safety valve apparently failed and therefore looks to have caused the explosion of the gas main which then created the fire that destroyed 37 homes and took four lives.

PG&E’s acceptance of responsibility for the fire and its destruction is at least a halfway decent start. (But tell that to those who lost EVERYTHING.) A decent start this time around for a company almost literally born of fire. A quick trip in the wayback machine takes us to the birth of Pacific Gas & Electric in 1906.

Wasn’t that the year of the…

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Most of us know that the quake itself was not what destroyed the city of San Francisco. Fires resulting from it are what razed the city.

Fires that resulted from broken gas mains. But there’s more that most of us generally DON’T know:

…the gas mains that broke, causing the fires in many places throughout the city were there to provide electric lighting.

…those gas mains were there because the SF Board of Supervisors had approved the proposals of PG&E because they — and the mayor — had received tens of thou$ands of dollars in bribes to do so.

An initial investigation from the spring of 1906 concluded in April, 1907 with grand jury indictments of the mayor, the entire board of supervisors, for taking bribes from, among others, PG&E, via its attorney Abraham “Boss” Ruef. Ruef appears to have been the center of a rampant graft environment at the time, and gave money to the board of supervisors and mayor on behalf of PG&E and others, for instance, to secure contracts, to fix rates for newly laid gas lines, and more. Of the more than 20 people indicted only Ruef served any time, as the state supreme court overturned the mayor’s conviction and charges were dismissed against all others. It’s generally agreed by historians of the situation that this was due to power wielded by the Southern Pacific Railway (ie, a certain Leland Stanford, one mister George Hearst…and their representatives and minions). Admittedly Ruef was the central player of the rampant graft defining city politics at that time.

So, to sum up: PG&E was born in 1906 as a merger of companies just recently acquired and merged by players of the Southern Pacific and old skool political machine designed to offer domination of the lucrative SF market to constituent parties. They laid their lines (thanks to bribery), they fixed their rates (thanks to bribery) and when the quake hit, the new lines burned 20,000 blocks of the city down. Lovely! A year later, following the investigation, the board of supervisors, mayor et al, were thrown out on their asses and a new day dawned.

History is fascinating…and positively bursting over with lessons such as this one, even from the very recent past!

Fast forward 104 years.

It looks like PG&E might not be keeping up on the safety of its 1000s of miles of gas lines that traverse the entire Bay Area. The Bay Area, as if reminder is needed, exists as it does because of two fault lines, the San Andreas and the Hayward. Those of us in the Bay are pretty well aware that the Hayward — that’s the one that runs up and down the length of the East Bay — is due to snap within the very near and foreseeable future. I’ll be clearer: within the next several years it is 75% assured that there will be a major, cataclysmic earthquake emanating from an epicenter in the East Bay.

The journalistically admirable San Jose Mercury News ran a cover story a few days ago with excellent Web features focused on PG&E’s feeder lines in the Bay. It might be instructive to mash up their map with one of the Hayward fault. Hmmmm? Looks like the feeder lines cross the fault at two places: Richmond in the north and Fremont in the south. And that’s just the feeder lines, not counting all the myriad lines which branch off to the neighborhoods.

All I’m sayin is this: if history is any measure, PG&E had better hop to on checking the lines, and with some third party oversight. Oh! And look: one of their feeder lines that led directly to the one that exploded last week below San Bruno literally lays on top of the San Andreas for oh, 14 miles. Heyyyy, but who’s counting, right?!?!?!


next time:

my kids are cool…me? not so much lol



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