Dozens dead. Thousands displaced. Billions of dollars in damage. Major outages and high costs. After years of out-of-control wildfires,The Wall Street Journal undertook relentless reporting in 2019 that connected the deadly disasters in California to systemic failures by PG&E Corp. That reporting exposed a culture of neglect and prompted changes that will make millions of Californians safer.
Journal reporters flew drones and hiked along remote ravines to inspect PG&E power lines. They unearthed documents indicating when lines were last upgraded. This visual story explains the intersection of aging PG&E infrastructure and California’s elevated fire-risk areas.
Journal reporting revealed that PG&E’s equipment was starting more than a fire a day in California. PG&E was aware that hundreds of its lines had exceeded their life expectancy but repeatedly delayed safety work, including on the line that broke and started the November 2018 Camp Fire.
PG&E said it was considering permanently shutting off the line a day after the Journal reported that the company had delayed upgrades.
Mapping the vulnerable equipment on top of California’s greatest fire-risk areas provided a birds’-eye view of the situation. Seamless use of drone video, animation and cartography allowed us to present this critical information to our millions of readers in a way that was both meaningful and memorable.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most challenging part of this project was paring down a wealth of related geographic data to the most necessary. For three months, the team doggedly scrutinized data to pick the most impactful sets and relentlessly edited the material to provide a clear narrative.
Journal reporters flew drones and hiked along remote ravines to inspect PG&E power lines. They unearthed obscure federal documents and discovered when lines were last upgraded. And they tracked down hundreds of current and former PG&E executives, contractors and regulators.
Their reporting revealed:
PG&E’s equipment was starting more than a fire a day in California.
The company repeatedly delayed safety work on the century-old transmission line that broke and started the November 2018 Camp Fire, killing 85 people.
PG&E was aware that hundreds of its high-voltage lines had exceeded their life expectancy—some were more than 100 years old—but never upgraded them.
The company planned to black out millions of customers in a desperate bid to stop sparking fires without sufficient consideration of the effects on health and safety.
California regulators were preoccupied with requiring the utility to purchase green power and slow to recognize how a changing climate increased the danger posed by its equipment.
What can others learn from this project?
This project is proof of the power of diligent data-driven reporting. The Journal mined hundreds of pages of the official reports to shed light on the causes of the deadly California wildfires. Using data, visual assets and intuitive navigation in a careful way the Journal turned an extremely complex topic into a very clear and story. The series, including this key visual story, had significant impact.
Amid mounting lawsuits and growing financial pressure related to the company’s role in wildfires, PG&E’s CEO resigned and the company announced it would file for bankruptcy due to more than $30 billion in fire-related liabilities. Those announcements came within 24 hours of the Journal’s report that the company’s equipment was starting a fire a day.
PG&E said it was considering permanently shutting off the line that sparked the Camp Fire a day after the Journal reported that the company had delayed safety upgrades on it. PG&E eventually decommissioned the line forever.
All the while, the Journal’s team showed readers the human toll of what PG&E wrought. An article about the survivors trying to rebuild Paradise, the town turned to ash by the Camp Fire, quoted school superintendent Michelle John confronting PG&E executives visiting the city: “You ruined thousands of lives.”
Erin Brockovich, the activist famous for her legal fight against PG&E for contaminating a town’s drinking water, cited the Journal’s reporting while calling for a criminal investigation into the utility. “People are dead and it could have been prevented,” she told followers on Twitter, sharing the Journal’s report that PG&E had sparked at least 1,500 wildfires.