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Cal Fire: PG&E transmission line sparked 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County

Cal Fire officials announced Thursday PG&E electrical equipment was responsible for starting the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County.|

By the numbers: Kincade fire

Erupted Oct. 23, 2019

Burned for 13 days

Scorched 77,758 acres

Destroyed 374 structures, including 174 homes

Injured four firefighters

Prompted evacuation of about 190,000 people

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.

“PG&E has experienced persistent equipment failures, neglected their equipment and continued to threaten the community’s safety,” he said. “We look forward to holding PG&E accountable for causing the Kincade fire and achieving full and fair compensation for our clients.”

Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said in an email the county intends to file a claim against PG&E.

“The Cal Fire report is consistent with our outside counsel's investigation and it will be powerful evidence regarding liability,” he said.

Sonoma County sustained a $620 million economic loss from the fire, an amount determined by Moody’s Analytics. The estimate included $235 million in lost economic output and $385 million in property losses.

A Cal Fire spokeswoman deferred comment to Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who was sent a copy of the agency’s report.

Ravitch, whose office must decide whether to file charges against PG&E, said “we’ve been anxiously awaiting the final report.”

“I know it is an important case for all of us,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at it as thoroughly and expeditiously as possible.”

Ravitch said she had personally visited the site where the blaze was believed to have started a few days after the fire.

She will not release Cal Fire’s report until her office has completed its review.

The decision on filing charges will be made “depending on the strength of the case,” Ravitch said.

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district bore the brunt of the Kincade fire, marveled at the timing.

“We’ve been through this. We just received a settlement from Tubbs, and here we are with confirmation for something we already knew,” he said.

Gore spent days last fall embedded with firefighters in and out of the Mayacamas Mountains as they battled the blaze, and he said all of the early reports suggested PG&E transmission lines were to blame.

Evidence early on suggested the fire started with a PG&E transmission tower. One day after the flames erupted, the utility reported to state regulators it had documented an equipment failure with a transmission tower near the fire’s origin.

Then in November, PG&E drew links between the cause of the Camp and Kincade fires in a report to a federal judge, telling the court it was examining whether a certain piece of equipment on transmission towers called jumper cables were “susceptible to failure.”

Longstanding allegations that PG&E neglected its electric and gas systems have been borne out over the last decade, starting with the deadly gas explosion in San Bruno in 2010. A federal judge found PG&E guilty of negligence in that explosion.

The 2017 firestorm involved major fires in five Northern California counties — Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Yuba. Sonoma was hit hardest, and most of those major fires, save for the Tubbs, were found by Cal Fire investigators to have started with PG&E equipment.

The county is now engaged in talks with PG&E related to the Kincade fire, Gore confirmed, and he called on the utility not only to make amends for the damage caused, but to fix the problems that continue to plague its grid and menace communities.

“We were in the middle of a power shutdown, and the few lines they had left on, because they thought they were strong enough, still went down,” Gore said, referring to the preemptive outage that preceded the Kincade fire. “It shows how much work this utility still has to do to repair this grid.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said Cal Fire’s finding “comes as no surprise to any of us who lived here. It’s been clear for months where this fire started.”

McGuire recalled that hurricane-force winds were blowing atop the ridgeline Oct. 23 and PG&E had purposely shut off power to tens of thousands of people throughout the county.

The tactic, known as a public safety power shutdown, has been embraced by PG&E and other major utilities as a preventive measure during episodes of high fire risk, including strong winds.

But the utility opted not to cut power to high-voltage transmission lines in the area where the blaze would begin.

That decision, sure to be scrutinized in the weeks and months ahead, was “one of the most egregious actions that we’ve seen by the utility,” McGuire said.

You can reach You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com; Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com; Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

By the numbers: Kincade fire

Erupted Oct. 23, 2019

Burned for 13 days

Scorched 77,758 acres

Destroyed 374 structures, including 174 homes

Injured four firefighters

Prompted evacuation of about 190,000 people

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