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SIERRA FOOTHILLS — Striding through a field of shin-high, yellow grass under a glaring September sun, the tall and energetic federal judge looked toward a cluster of oaks and made a prediction.
"If the fire came through here," William Alsup declared, "it would scorch the bottom of that tree. But it wouldn't kill it. The tree would be fine."
So would the rest of Alsup's 40-acre ranch in the picturesque Sierra Nevada foothills, the 76-year-old Bay Area jurist hopes, thanks to his countless hours of manual labor.
When Alsup bought the remote property where his second home is located in the 1990s, much of it was a jungle of overgrown brush that provided easy kindling for wildfires. Now, after years of clearing flammable vegetation, Alsup's ranch looks more like a well-maintained park, with groves of green trees spaced comfortably apart and wide open expanses containing little more than grass.
Fire is familiar to the ranch and its owner. Almost 15 years ago, a blaze burned one-third of Alsup's land and came within about 30 feet of his house. In more recent times, the judge has seen flames and firefighting aircraft a few miles away. His goal is to deprive the next big fire of the fuel it would need to spread uncontrollably.
"I'm very proud of it," Alsup said of the ranch. "I take good care of my land."
California wildfires are also a professional concern for the judge.
From his San Francisco seat at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Alsup has been overseeing the five-year probation of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the long-beleaguered utility whose aging power lines have ignited some of the state's worst wildfires on record.
The probation term began in 2017, arising from PG&E's responsibility for a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno . But since late 2018, Alsup has been laser-focused on PG&E's culpability for a seemingly endless list of major fires, sometimes directing sharp criticism at its executives and expressing frustration with the pace of progress.
While a corporation like PG&E can't go to prison, probation has put Alsup in the position to supervise the company's wildfire-prevention work, push for changes and demand accountability. His efforts have been aided by a court-appointed federal monitor, Mark Filip, whose team has closely examined PG&E's efforts to stop causing fires and reform its troubled natural gas division.
At home on the ranch, Alsup is relatively assured about his work preventing wildfire destruction. In court, however, as PG&E's probation approaches its conclusion next week, the judge is far more pessimistic.
"I believe I have been a total failure in this job with respect to PG&E," Alsup said at a public hearing this month. "It's killing people year after year with wildfires. I would have thought, in five years, I could bring it under control, but I have failed."
A Chronicle reporter and photographer visited Alsup's ranch in September under the condition that the newspaper not identify the community in which it's located because of security concerns. Alsup would not talk specifically about PG&E because the probation has not ended. But in a series of interviews, combined with his public statements and actions in court, the picture that emerged is one of a man singularly positioned at the heart of an existential threat to contemporary California.
To Alsup, the effects of intensifying western wildfires are not theoretical concepts or distant events. They are apparent in his San Francisco docket and his Sierra backyard.
Since being nominated to the federal bench by then-President Bill Clinton in 1999, Alsup has established himself as a detail-oriented judge with a knack for incisive courtroom commentary. On the District Court, he has waded into some of the marquee matters facing the state and the nation, from technology to climate change.
In 2012, during a dispute between Oracle and Google, Alsup revealed that he knew how to do some coding , experience that allowed him to cast a skeptical eye on lawyers' technical claims. Alsup presided over another high-profile dispute about self-driving car technology between Waymo and Uber before the case was settled.
He studied climate change closely in 2018, when he considered arguments by San Francisco and Oakland that some of the world's major oil companies should be held accountable for their products' role in global warming. In a rare move, Alsup ordered both the governments and the companies to answer questions at an hours-long "tutorial" hearing that served as a kind of crash course in climate science. His questions in advance of the hearing covered basics such as the cause of ice ages and the consequences of combusting fossil fuels.
"I admire him for trying to educate himself on some pretty complicated issues," said Gary Griggs, an Earth and planetary sciences professor at UC Santa Cruz who participated in the tutorial. "He was a really good listener. He had some very probing questions."
Now Alsup, a Mississippi native who moved to California in the 1970s to be closer to his wife's relatives, has learned just how much fossil fuels are upending the climate.
"I do believe that California is getting warmer on account of man-induced climate change," he told The Chronicle during a walk around San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza last year. "I have lived long enough to have seen many heat waves in California, but I believe that climate change has made it hotter … and also that climate change has exacerbated our weather patterns."
Months after Alsup's tutorial in the oil case, his work forced him to confront the hotter climate in an even more direct way.
In November 2018, a neglected, century-old PG&E transmission line sparked the horrific Camp Fire that killed 84 people and destroyed most of the Butte County town of Paradise. PG&E's shoddy maintenance caused the fire, but its devastating sprint was accelerated by a remarkably long stretch of arid weather likely worsened by rising global temperatures.
Alsup had assumed oversight of PG&E's probation in 2017 after the judge who imposed it, Thelton Henderson, retired. But less than three weeks after PG&E admitted that its equipment may have been to blame for the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history — Alsup demanded answers. He ordered PG&E to provide an "accurate and complete statement" explaining its connection to the fire, trying to determine if the company had violated the terms of its probation.
The order kicked off more than three years of federal judicial scrutiny over PG&E's role in Northern California wildfires. In each of those years, PG&E power lines continued to wreak havoc on the state, causing the 2019 Kincade Fire in Wine Country, the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County and the 2021 Dixie Fire in the northern Sierra, California's second-largest wildfire on record. Earlier, the company was also blamed for many of the devastating 2017 wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Alsup has tried to hold PG&E accountable by forcing the company to provide voluminous detail on its infrastructure and maintenance work, all while pressing for more aggressive efforts to prevent fires and repeatedly chastising PG&E lawyers.
He has called PG&E a "terror, T-E-R-R-O-R, to the people of the state of California." And though he has acknowledged the role of the changing climate in elevating the threat of wildfires, he has emphasized that it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card for PG&E.
"We've had a long time to adapt and to organize ourselves to be able to deal with the problem of climate change, which definitely makes the wildfires worse," Alsup said at a 2021 court hearing. "But climate change doesn't start the wildfire. PG&E starts the wildfire. Then it's worse than it would have been maybe, but PG&E is the one that's starting the wildfires."
All along, he has been tending to his ranch, trying to ensure it was protected.
Alsup sees preparing his land to withstand wildfire as a kind of art — and it's one he taught himself.
His strategy is tried and true: If the brush is more than 3 feet tall, he ties a rope around its base, about 18 inches off the ground, and attaches it to the back of a truck. Having secured just enough leverage, he or a friend will then drive the truck to liberate the shrub from the ground. Other, smaller vegetation he removes with tools and old-fashioned elbow grease.
Alsup arranges the shrubs, downed trees and limbs he's severed into piles that he safely incinerates before fire season. He keeps water in thick plastic jugs stashed around the property, just in case a burn pile gets out of control.
"I feel like I'm the steward of this land," Alsup said.
One of the people who has assisted Alsup on the ranch is his friend Vern Winters, a retired patent lawyer.
Winters' Oakland home is about a mile away from Alsup's. After they became friends several years ago, Winters started traveling to Alsup's ranch on occasion. Winters said he would wake up before sunrise and journey to the Sierra foothills, where Alsup would provide him a "good breakfast" of eggs and bacon or chicken sausage. Then they'd get to work removing brush and building burn piles.
Winters, about 15 years Alsup's junior, has been struck by the judge's dedication to the ranch.
"I would say the judge considers the ranch one of his children and a legacy of his," Winters said. "He has a deep spiritual connection to that land."
Alsup's attempts to rein in PG&E have ranged from creative to highly technical.
In 2019, as punishment for PG&E having violated its probation terms, Alsup told company executives and board members to tour Paradise, which was at the time still in ruins because of the Camp Fire. When company leaders completed the visit the next month, Alsup went with them.
Later the same year, he ordered PG&E to respond paragraph by paragraph to a Wall Street Journal investigation that said the company knew parts of its electric system, including the power line that caused the Camp Fire, were outdated and didn't fix them.
At other moments in the case, Alsup has pushed PG&E to reform its power line inspections, tree-trimming program and record-keeping. He has compelled the company to provide a wide range of details about its connection to various fires and the status of its poles and wires. In September, he personally interrogated the PG&E employee who first spotted what became the Dixie Fire spreading near a tree that had fallen on a power line in the Feather River Canyon.
PG&E attorneys, in a final report that Alsup directed them to submit, have characterized the court's work as having made the company better. In the years since Alsup began scrutinizing PG&E's role in wildfires, its electric grid has become "fundamentally safer," the company said. But PG&E also admitted that it has "more work to do to meet the extraordinary challenges facing the company" even though "there are no fast or fail-proof options to respond to the continuing change in climate that has occurred in Northern California."
A separate review of the probation term issued by PG&E's court-appointed monitor found that, while the company had improved on a number of fronts, "progress regarding wildfire mitigation obviously has been inadequate."
Alsup said at a hearing this month that, as the probation wound to a close, he still felt like "PG&E is continuing to be a menace to society."
"Every year you're killing people, burning up thousands of acres of land," he told lawyers for the company. "It's true that improvements have been made in the system, but why does it continue? Why is it that PG&E is unwilling to admit error, unwilling to accept responsibility for what was done?"
Alsup said he was willing to consider extending PG&E's probation — even though doing so would wade into murky legal territory. But he would only weigh that option if it was requested by federal prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney's Office then said it would not to seek an extension, "based on the unique history and circumstances of this case … while acknowledging that there appears to be no binding case law on point."
That doesn't mean PG&E is done facing legal consequences for its role in wildfires.
District attorneys in Sonoma and Shasta counties have filed criminal charges against the company over the Kincade and Zogg fires, respectively. And the company revealed that it received a subpoena from federal prosecutors for documents related to the Dixie Fire, suggesting a federal criminal investigation over that fire is under way — a probe that could, in theory, result in PG&E being placed on probation again.
Catherine Sandoval, a former state regulator of PG&E who has represented some utility customers urging Alsup to crack down on the company, said she was disappointed that the probation would not continue. But overall, her critiques were more with the federal prosecutors and the company than with Alsup.
"He's been very tough on PG&E," Sandoval said of the judge. "He's been willing to call them out. He's been very detailed. He's been very amenable to suggestions that help to understand what happened and what is driving these problems."
Back in the foothills, Alsup's ranch has not been threatened by a major wildfire sparked by a PG&E power line. Still, the Sierra, like the state as a whole, remains at risk as the climate continues to warm and the elevated risk of extreme fires — no matter the cause — persists.
When fire season picks up in the summer and early autumn, Alsup said, "you're always worried when the wind hits the right way." Or the wrong way.
That's why Alsup is so invested in fire safety on his ranch, a place beloved even by his 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Jack. The dog's tail starts wagging every time he and Alsup approach the property.
"If you're living in that area, you have a responsibility to make your property as fire safe as you can," Alsup told The Chronicle. "You have an obligation to make the land defensible."
In January of last year, Alsup transitioned to senior status on the federal bench, which means he has a reduced caseload. The shift gives him more time to spend with his wife at their primary home in Oakland, or enjoying the peaceful seclusion of their foothills ranch. Alsup, who has two adult children, also enjoys hiking in the Sierra, playing the guitar and communicating on ham radio, among other interests.
But he's not thinking about retiring anytime soon. He plans to remain an active judge for the foreseeable future.
He feels the same way about the ranch. For as long and as often as he can, he'll be there, working to make it safer from fire.
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