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Cal Fire report on origin of Tubbs fire sparks contentious debate

Cal Fire's long-awaited report concluding the 2017 Tubbs fire started with a Napa County property owner's electrical equipment, not PG&E powerlines, has now become the focus of contentious debate.

Based on volumes of eyewitness reports, evidence and expert analyses, the 80-page investigative summary concludes with the lead investigator's best theory, based on an analysis of what didn't appear to have started the fire - and less clarity on what did.

“They found the area of origin. As far as how it started, we are not sure,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said. “It was electrical in nature, but so much damage was done.”

The Tubbs fire - which burned from Calistoga into residential Santa Rosa, killing 22 people and destroying 5,636 structures - is the only wildfire among 18 major blazes that broke out in October 2017 across Northern California that Cal Fire investigators didn't attribute to PG&E power equipment.

The strongest rejection of Cal Fire's findings Friday came from attorneys representing thousands of people who lost their homes in the fires and the governments burdened with both fire response and recovery who are suing PG&E in an attempt to hold the utility giant responsible for the fires and recoup billions of dollars in losses.

They contend PG&E still could be liable for the Tubbs fire, which caused the bulk of the damage in Sonoma County from wildfires that broke out during a dangerous combination of conditions: gusty winds, drought-parched vegetation and, they argue, a neglected power grid.

“Their report concludes the fire was started by ‘unknown events.' That's their big conclusion. ‘Unknown events,'?” said Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller, who lost his Wikiup home in the Tubbs fire and whose firm represents about 1,200 plaintiffs suing PG&E.

He questioned Cal Fire's findings and said his investigator reached a different conclusion using the same evidence, including burn patterns that suggest the fire started with a PG&E power pole at the front of the Bennett Lane property, owned by Ann Zink, where the fire originated.

“Our belief is based on not just our investigation but now based on Cal Fire's report that there was no power at Mrs. Zink's property when the fire reached it,” Miller said.

Shifting focus from fire's cause

Cal Fire's finding shifts litigants' focus away from the Tubbs fire's cause to a trial of PG&E safety practices and grid maintenance programs.

PG&E's decision to file for bankruptcy next week may ultimately have more ramifications for people who lost their homes than the Cal Fire report, which is not admissible as evidence in a trial, said Mike Kelly, another top lawyer representing Tubbs fire victims and others.

“We've had a negligence case prepared for a year anyway so it doesn't change anything for us,” Kelly said.

A look at the report shows a highly technical analysis by Cal Fire experts who could become key witnesses deposed to testify in a civil trial against PG&E.

Neighbors, volunteer firefighters and police who saw flames in the earliest moments of the Tubbs fire led state investigators to the burned rubble of a Bennett Lane home, where they would determine California's second-deadliest fire in recorded history first ignited.

From there, charred wood, scorched earth and trees with soot deposits on one side told investigators stories about the fire's trajectory. It pointed them toward evidence like a hole in the ground where a utility pole stood next to a house before fire destroyed it all, including the most definitive evidence that might have showed exactly how the fire started.

Cal Fire investigators cordoned off the property, keeping it guarded for the next 17 days while they conducted the bulk of the on-the-ground work that had investigators at points on their hands and knees to examine possible evidence on the ground. They photographed the area extensively, noting small details like windswept needles pointing in the direction the wind was blowing when the fire passed, and used high-tech equipment to create 3D models of the site.

Even after Cal Fire released its control of the private property and sent the guards home, the work was far from over.

The report lists 43 witnesses who gave statements to investigators about their observations of the fire's spread or provided other key information, such as the caretaker for the property owned by Zink, who lives in Riverside County.

Investigators ruled out a main PG&E utility pole serving the property after finding no evidence the conductors were charged when it fell to the ground, according to the report.

McLean said that the report reflects the investigators' conclusions reached through a process of elimination that zeroed in on the most likely ignition source - private electrical equipment on a weakened utility pole adjacent to the home - but was not able to describe “exactly what transpired.”

PG&E defense bolstered

Cal Fire's conclusions bolster a defense launched by PG&E in court documents and regulatory filings indicating the company's investigators reached the same conclusions as Cal Fire.

Santa Rosa Deputy Fire Chief Scott Westrope defended the quality of Cal Fire's investigation at a press conference Friday outside City Hall, saying local officials had “every faith in our counterparts at Cal Fire.”

The city of Santa Rosa will continue its lawsuit against PG&E in the wake of Cal Fire's report and will review the matter with legal counsel in a closed meeting Tuesday at City Hall, Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said.

“We are committed to that effort because we believe it is in the best interest of the community of Santa Rosa to continue to do so,” Schwedhelm said, adding that the City Council also will discuss the utility giant's stated intent to file for bankruptcy at the closed session. “We're trying to get all the resources we can that rightfully should be coming back to the city of Santa Rosa so that we can continue our rebuild efforts.”

Cal Fire investigators found no violations of state safety laws and did not recommend criminal charges in the Tubbs case.

District attorneys review case

The Tubbs investigation was the last of the 2017 fire reports to be released, and its conclusion now sets in motion reviews by district attorneys in multiple counties charged with determining whether to file charges over any criminal violations.

Napa County Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero said his office is now set to begin reviewing each case on the multiple fires that broke out there. It expects to make a decision sometime next month.

“We didn't want to make a piecemeal decision. We wanted to look at everything from all the fires that affected Napa County and make a decision,” Gero said.

A spokeswoman with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office said they too will begin reviewing Cal Fire's investigations now that they have received its findings on the Tubbs fire.

The timing of the Tubbs report has drawn some debate about whether its release was tied to outside events, such as PG&E's announcement that it would seek bankruptcy protection next week.

McLean vehemently denied any connection between the report's release and involved parties, including PG&E.

“We don't work for PG&E. We don't work for anybody but the public,” McLean said. “When the report is done, reviewed, and we make sure everything is there, I personally write up the news release and I hit send.”

The report was finalized only after the lead investigator received on Dec. 26 the findings from an electrical engineer with Cal Fire analyzing the ignition source.

The engineer, Jim Nolt, wrote that the cause of the fire was electrical in nature but “undetermined because of the severe damage” and added that physical evidence, witness reports and other information does “not confirm that PG&E was the source of ignition.”

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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