Cal Fire reaches quicker, divergent conclusion in Camp fire from 2017 Tubbs fire
Six months after the Camp fire killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, residents from the Sierra Nevada communities east of Chico had confirmation of what was long suspected: one of PG&E’s aging transmission lines sparked the wildfire that ruined so many lives.
It’s a swift conclusion compared to the 16 months that survivors of the 2017 Tubbs fire waited to receive Cal Fire’s far less decisive report in that blaze. After a lengthy process of elimination at an origin site mostly destroyed by fire, the agency announced earlier this year that electric equipment owned by an elderly Napa County property holder likely caused the 36,807-acre fire that burned west across the Mayacamas Mountains into Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and destroying more than ?4,700 homes. The finding cleared PG&E of responsibility and left the Tubbs as the only major blaze in the 2017 October firestorm not caused by the utility’s equipment.
Investigations into the Camp and Tubbs fires developed along separate paths, at different paces and arrived at disparate conclusions.
There are no standards for fire investigation timelines because “every fire is different,” Cal Fire spokesman Michael Mohler said. He declined to discuss the factors that led the Tubbs fire investigation to drag on out of concern that it might reveal investigative techniques and impede the Butte County District Attorney’s Office review of Cal Fire’s findings.
“We don’t work by a clock. We work by what we have to do,” Mohler said. “Timelines are never in our schedule, and every fire poses different challenges.”
Wednesday’s report on the Camp fire’s cause won’t change the course of bankruptcy proceedings for upwards of 10,000 households seeking compensation from PG&E for their losses in 2017 and 2018 wildfires under a newly tooled process overseen by the bankruptcy judge.
“There’s been a working assumption from the beginning that this (the Camp fire) was a PG&E-fault case,” said Santa Rosa-based attorney Roy Miller, who lost his Wikiup home in the Tubbs fire and is part of a legal group representing about ?4,000 households with property losses in the state’s major fires. “It’s simply the last piece of that puzzle.”
The 153,336-acre Camp fire ignited Nov. 8 near Pulga, burning east into the foothill town and spreading west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico. It destroyed 18,804 structures, including nearly 15,000 homes. PG&E’s recent estimate pegged its liabilities stemming from the Camp fire at $10.5 billion.
As far back as November, PG&E public filings and statements foreshadowed Cal Fire’s conclusion. In a statement Wednesday, utility officials said Cal Fire’s determination the fire started with transmission lines near Pulga “is consistent with the company’s previous statements.”
In contrast, Cal Fire’s findings about the Tubbs fire, announced Jan. 24, diverged from widely held assumptions about how it started. Those expectations were fueled in part by investigations into other 2017 fires in which Cal Fire identified PG&E electric equipment as the prime ignition source. Separately, PG&E had also notified utility officials that it had equipment in the area of the fire’s origin outside Calistoga that had failed around the time the inferno erupted.
The agency’s determination, laid out in an 80-page report, that privately owned and maintained electric equipment off Bennett Lane sparked the Tubbs fire rattled many survivors of the firestorm and spurred uncertainty about whether they would become a lone group unable seek compensation from the investor-owned utility for catastrophic losses. Tubbs fire liabilities were estimated at $17 billion.
Lawyers representing thousands of people who lost their homes in the fires and the governments on the hook for the response costs were poised to challenge the Tubbs finding in civil trials.
PG&E’s stock soared after Cal Fire’s January announcement. But five days later, the utility filed for bankruptcy protection.
PG&E officials said it took the drastic step to help maintain gas and electric services for its 16 million customers and keep the company’s employees - including ?772 people in Sonoma County - on the job. In effect, the move halted civil proceedings that, in the case of the Tubbs fire, would have amounted to a trial of the Cal Fire investigation.
The bankruptcy filing put all cases against the San Francisco-based company on hold while it undergoes what could be a two-year overhaul.
Survivors and other plaintiffs suing the company over the fires must file claims with the bankruptcy court detailing their losses in a phase expected to conclude before the end of the year, said Miller, who described the process he expects to unfold for fire survivors through the bankruptcy proceedings. A formula will be created to assess the claim amount for different levels of losses and the judge will evaluate those claims against what PG&E can pay while still maintaining its services.
Wrongful death matters will be handled separately, by the same bankruptcy judge, likely through a set of mediators, according to Miller.
PG&E is expected to request a discount be applied for claims from Tubbs fire losses, a move Miller and others lawyers anticipate and plan to fight. The core of their argument is that Cal Fire’s conclusion isn’t supported by its own investigators’ findings outlined in its report, Miller said.
“We will either try to convince the bankruptcy judge to release us so we can litigate this in a civil trial, or the bankruptcy judge may have a mini trial to determine fault issue in Tubbs,” Miller said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.