Cal Fire: PG&E transmission line sparked 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County
A high voltage PG&E transmission line in the remote Mayacamas Mountains ignited the Kincade fire, a wildland blaze fueled by a succession of October windstorms that grew into the largest wildfire in Sonoma County history, Cal Fire announced Thursday.
The nine-month state investigation into the cause of the Oct. 23 inferno, long suspected to have originated with PG&E electrical lines, has been handed to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to review for possible criminal charges against the utility, state officials said.
It is the latest in a series of more than 20 destructive and deadly California wildfires tied to the state’s largest utility, which only two weeks ago emerged from bankruptcy due to the massive liabilities it incurred in those far-reaching disasters, which devastated communities stretching from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the North Bay.
For Sonoma County, the Kincade fire was a nightmarish sequel to the horrific Tubbs fire in October 2017. It started on a night when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. had cut power for much of northern Sonoma County as a result of high-risk wildfire conditions: parched vegetation and high winds.
High-voltage PG&E transmission lines in The Geysers geothermal area, however, remained energized.
That equipment, Cal Fire determined, led to a spark in darkness that sent flames racing over the dry landscape. The fire burned down the flanks of the Mayacamas range and into Alexander Valley before terrorizing communities from Cloverdale to Windsor over days and prompting the evacuation of about 190,000 people from the Highway 101 corridor to the coast, 18 miles away.
On Windsor’s eastern outskirts, a brave and calculated stand by firefighters was credited with saving neighborhoods and likely much of the town.
The largest by far of California’s more than 7,800 fires last year, the Kincade ultimately scorched 77,759 acres, destroyed 174 homes and 374 structures in all.
In a five-paragraph announcement Thursday, Cal Fire said the blaze was sparked by “electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity.” The agency said “tinder dry vegetation and strong winds combined with low humidity and warm temperatures contributed to extreme rates of fire spread.”
Nothing more was disclosed by Cal Fire, including its investigative report into the fire’s cause.
“There are a bunch of emotions; I don’t know where to start,” said Ed Nessinger, whose family has been hit hard by fires in 2017 and then Kincade.
The wildfire had been burning several days when Nessinger saw flames cresting over Chalk Hill on Windsor’s eastern outskirts and up into his hillside Shiloh Estates community. The fire burned onto his property and smoke and intense heat rendered his house uninhabitable.
Flames destroyed a granny unit on the property where Nessinger’s daughter and her family were living. They had been displaced when the Tubbs fire destroyed their Fountaingrove home. The “double whammy” has been difficult, Nessinger said.
“It’s easy to point fingers and it’s easy to place blame,” Nessinger said. “But we need true understanding of the whole wildfire situation for the community.”
In a statement, PG&E officials said they were aware of Cal Fire’s determination but noted “at this time, we do not have access to Cal Fire’s investigative report or the evidence it has collected.”
“We appreciate all the heroic efforts of the first responders who fought the 2019 Kincade Fire, helped local citizens evacuate and made sure no one perished in the fire,” the company statement said.
Cal Fire’s decision comes two weeks after PG&E emerged from its historic bankruptcy, driven by the company’s role in starting major wildfires, including many in the 2017 North Bay firestorm, where 40 people died, and the even deadlier 2018 Camp fire in Butte County. Last month, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for its role sparking the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise.
No one was killed in the Kincade fire. Four firefighters suffered burns during the firefight.
This month, more than 50 businesses and individuals filed a lawsuit against PG&E seeking compensation for damages from the Kincade fire.
Mayacama Golf Club, three wineries and four hotels are among the 21 businesses seeking unspecified damages from the utility, along with 30 individuals or trusts.
“Cal Fire’s report validates what this community knew all along and what we alleged in our complaint,” Healdsburg attorney Jack Weaver, one of the lawyers handling the case, said in an email.