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PG&E contends private power line may have caused deadly Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa counties

Cal Fire firefighters protect a structure at 1108 Bennett Lane and Highway 128 in Napa County close to the origin of the Tubbs fire, Sunday Oct. 8, 2017. The house later burned to the ground. The home was among the first to catch fire. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

KEVIN MCCALLUM,

PG&E contends in a new court filing that a private power line may have started the deadly Tubbs fire that raced through Santa Rosa last month and became the most destructive wildfire in state history.

The Tubbs fire, which killed 21 people and destroyed more than 4,400 homes in Sonoma County, remains under state investigation. At least 10 lawsuits with more than 100 plaintiffs had been filed last week against PG&E claiming poorly maintained power lines were responsible for Northern California blazes that erupted Oct. 8, including the Tubbs fire.

But “preliminary investigations suggest that this fire might have been caused by electrical equipment that was owned, installed and maintained by a third party not named in these actions,” PG&E attorneys wrote in a filing Thursday with the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts.

PG&E did not name the third party but referenced a Napa County location near Bennett Lane and Highway 128 north of Calistoga where investigators have focused their work on the cause of the Tubbs fire. Cal Fire officials have seized power equipment and privately owned electric lines at a undisclosed property in the area, according to separate PG&E filings made public last month by state utility regulators.

The new PG&E filing does not offer any evidence that the reported third-party electrical equipment was responsible for the Tubbs fire. It makes clear investigators with Cal Fire and the state Public Utilities Commission have not identified a cause.

“The Cal Fire and CPUC investigations are still ongoing,” PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said in a statement “They haven’t determined the cause of any of the wildfires yet. Our motion speaks for itself.”

The Tubbs fire began shortly before 10 p.m. Oct. 8 and ultimately burned 36,807 acres on a westward path into northern Santa Rosa, where it destroyed 2,900 homes inside city limits and about 5,500 structures countywide.

It was by far the most destructive of the wind-whipped blazes that last month ravaged Northern California, together accounting for estimated property losses of $3.2 billion, making them the costliest in U.S. history.

PG&E filings with utility regulators last month documented 10 cases in Sonoma and Napa counties of toppled trees, downed lines and other damaged equipment in areas close to the origins of local blazes, including the Tubbs fire.

Cal Fire investigators have collected as evidence damaged power poles, wires and other pieces of utility equipment from at least 8 of the 10 sites in Sonoma and Napa counties where PG&E reported “electrical safety incidents,” according to the CPUC filings.

Last month, a Bennett Lane property was roped off with crime scene tape, and private security guards were working 12-hour shifts to secure the area.

One of the utility filings noted Cal Fire investigators took possession of equipment at a fire damaged home near Calistoga, including a “secondary service line that had detached from the fire-damaged home.”

The report noted that “Cal Fire also took possession of multiple sections of customer-owned overhead conductor that served multiple pieces of customer-owned equipment on the property.”

Cal Fire investigators have repeatedly stressed that their investigation is ongoing and has not identified a cause of any of the 30 blazes that broke out last month across Northern California during an unusually fierce, dry wind storm. They’ve said determining causes could take years.

Deputy Chief Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman, said he had seen media reports about PG&E’s latest filings, but did not have any information about them. He said 28 Cal Fire investigators are working to determine the cause of the wildfires, and they need to be allowed to complete their work.

“Our investigation is ongoing in a very meticulous and very thoughtful matter, and I will not say anything to jeopardize that investigation,” McLean said.

PG&E attorneys submitted the new court filing Thursday to support their case that 15 pending lawsuits against the company shouldn’t be consolidated before a single judge in San Francisco. The company contends that the fires are all different and therefore the cases should go to five different judges in five distinct geographic areas where the blazes occurred. The judicial council hasn’t made any decision on the request.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.