Cal Fire: PG&E equipment caused 12 Northern California fires during October firestorm
Cal Fire investigators said Friday that equipment owned and operated by PG&E ignited 12 wildfires that raged in hot, dry weather and high winds across Northern California in October, charring hundreds of square miles in Sonoma County and beyond, destroying thousands of structures and killing 18 people.
The utility was in violation of state code on eight of those fires, failing to clear brush around its lines and properly maintain its power equipment, according to state fire investigators.
Cal Fire found violations in the Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe and Pocket fires that burned in Sonoma and Napa counties; the Atlas fire in Napa County; the Sulphur fire in Lake County; and the Blue fire in Humboldt County. The agency forwarded its reports to district attorneys in those jurisdictions for review.
In the other four fires - the Redwood in Mendocino County, Cherokee in Butte County and the 37 and Nuns fires in Sonoma County - flames were ignited by power equipment but investigators found no evidence the utility company had violated state regulations.
The report is the latest set of findings from state fire investigators examining the causes of dozens of fires that burned more than 245,000 acres across Northern California in October, destroyed nearly ?6,200 homes and killed 44 people.
The probes have now found evidence in 11 of the 16 fires that PG&E had allegedly violated state codes designed, in part, to prevent fires by keeping tree limbs and other vegetation away from power lines.
Investigators have not yet released their determination on the Tubbs fire - the state’s most destructive - that burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and destroying more than 4,000 homes, most of them in Santa Rosa.
PG&E issued a statement that “we look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire reports to understand the agency’s perspectives.”
“Based on the information we have so far,” the company said, “we continue to believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards.”
The utility giant has been fighting for its future in Sacramento, lobbying lawmakers to change the state Constitution to remove a legal doctrine that requires the utility to pay for private property damage even if it isn’t found to have been negligent.
Called inverse condemnation, the legal safeguard ensures private property owners are compensated for damage related to public infrastructure, including private utility and telecommunications equipment, regardless of fault.
Patrick McCallum, a Sacramento lobbyist whose Santa Rosa home was destroyed in the Tubbs fire, criticized PG&E’s attempt to diminish its potential financial liabilities related to the fires.
He heads a coalition of displaced residents and trial attorneys called “Up From the Ashes.”
“PG&E has been trying to duck responsibility for the fires, blaming everything from climate change to local fire departments and the state’s liability laws,” McCallum said in an email. “Cal Fire’s report puts the blame where it belongs - squarely on PG&E, confirming it was responsible for many of the fires that devastated so many lives.”
Beyond the Tubbs fire, it’s unclear how many more reports remain for Cal Fire to complete. Spokesman Scott McLean said he didn’t know the number of outstanding investigations. The remaining four Northern California fire deaths were in a Yuba County blaze whose cause has not yet been determined by Cal Fire. State firefighters responded to more than 170 fires in October, but many of those were small, McLean said.
“They are very meticulous and they’re very determined to get to the cause and get that information to the public,” he said.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, called the alleged violations of state code “disappointing and deeply concerning.”
“It’s inexcusable, and it can’t be allowed to happen again,” he said in a statement.
Dodd called on PG&E, other utilities in California and the state Public Utilities Commission “to step up and ensure they are meeting their legal obligations to maintain power lines in a safe manner.”
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, praised Cal Fire for an “extensive and thoughtful investigative process” and called the report a “step forward in getting the answers communities deserve.”
“I’ve always said if PG&E or any other company is found negligent, they should be responsible for the damages caused by this devastating blaze,” McGuire said.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said the results were not surprising given “reports all over the region of trees going into lines and then sparking.” Gore called for change from the utility, which the county is suing because of the fires. But he cautioned against going too far.