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Cal Fire says it does not have enough evidence to determine cause of Glass fire

Five takeaways from Cal Fire’s report on 2020 Glass fire

The cause of the fire is officially undetermined, in part because of damage to evidence at the scene where it is believed to have started.

Investigators could not rule out the possibility the fire started in electrical panels associated with a water system on residential property off North Fork Crystal Springs Road in Napa County.

Investigators have ruled out electrical wiring and equipment in vineyard fencing at Cakebread Vineyards property off North Fork Crystal Springs Road.

Investigators have ruled out PG&E power equipment.

The Cal Fire investigation concluded that two secondary wildfires, initially called the Shady and Boysen fires, that ignited on the west side of Napa Valley more than 15 hours after the Glass fire started on the valley’s east side were caused by embers broadcast by the Glass fire.

Read the report

Glass fire facts

Began Sept. 27, 2020, in eastern Napa County

Burned 67,484 acres

Destroyed 1,555 structures, including 334 Sonoma County homes (about 30 in Santa Rosa) and 308 Napa County homes

Damaged about 30 winery properties

Fully contained on Oct. 20

Cal Fire said Friday that a 10-month investigation into the origin of last year’s Glass fire ultimately proved inconclusive, meaning hundreds of Sonoma and Napa County residents who lost homes and other property to the 23-day blaze likely will never know what caused it.

The 38-page report from Cal Fire’s chief investigator indicated he was unable to rule out the possibility the Sept. 27 wildfire started in a bank of electrical panels associated with large water tanks and solar panels on a residential property in Napa County’s Deer Park area.

Cal Fire Capt. Gary Uboldi wrote that post-fire work around the equipment in the weeks between the wildfire’s start and his mid-November examination of the area had “disturbed the scene substantially, along with wet weather conditions which effectively destroyed any remaining items of evidentiary value.”

Officially the cause of the fire remains “undetermined.”

“After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, which included months of follow-up on information provided by the public, not enough evidence was available to conclusively identify the cause,” Cal Fire said in a statement. “The cause of the Glass Fire is currently Undetermined pending any additional information or evidence that could lead to the determination of the cause.”

The findings could prove disappointing to survivors and others who had hoped to find closure or lay fault for the 67,484-acre wildfire, which destroyed 1,555 structures, including more than 640 homes, and damaged about 30 winery properties.

But several interviewed Friday said it had not really been on their radar, given the many other challenges of fire recovery. And unlike many recent wildfires in the North Bay and Northern California, there was little speculation Pacific Gas & Electric power equipment or any other particular cause was to blame, so any movement for legal redress never took hold.

“In the case of the other fires, the cause had been fairly readily determined,” said Patrick Emery, a Santa Rosa attorney who lost the Plum Ranch Road home he and his wife, Alison Sanford, had lived in since 1995. “But I did not have the impression that would be true of this fire.”

He had held out hope of any closure through the conclusion of Cal Fire’s investigation.

“I’ve just accepted the fact that life here where my home is going to be different, it’s never going to be the same,” he said of his Alpine Valley neighborhood. “The oak forest is gone. I can landscape my new house, but I can’t replant the oak forest. So rather than lament the change I think you just have to get used to it and enjoy what you’ve got.”

The Glass fire erupted shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, outside St. Helena, on the east side of the Napa Valley, during a Red Flag warning that included high, easterly winds and a tinder-dry conditions.

Like so many of the catastrophic wildfires that have ripped through the region in recent years, the winds broadcast embers widely, igniting multiple spot fires in the vicinity that merged and spread, and made locating the origins of the breakout challenging.

The embercast also caused two secondary fires — initially called the Shady and the Boysen fires — clear across the Napa Valley on the evening of Sept. 27 that would converge and contribute to the momentum of the Glass fire as it roared across the Mayacamas Mountains into Santa Rosa that night, Uboldi wrote.

The fire would destroy 308 homes in Napa County and 334 in Sonoma County, devastating reaches of the Mark West Creek watershed, Los Alamos Road, parts of the Skyhawk subdivision and areas along Highway 12.

Uboldi, the Cal Fire investigator, was dispatched along with firefighting crews at 3:50 a.m. that Sunday morning, minutes after the fire was first reported.

Following flames, using heat maps and taking other guidance, he found himself on the western flank of Howell Mountain, examining electrical wiring at a vineyard gate and fencing off North Fork Crystal Springs Road for a lengthy period until the next evening, when his own home on St. Helena Road near Santa Rosa came under threat.

During the ensuing days, he continued to investigate fire patterns left by flames and collected evidence from the location, owned by Cakebread Vineyards, but his observations eventually led him to a neighboring property.

A report from a REACH medical helicopter pilot, who had seen the fire in its early stages and retraced his flight with Uboldi on board Oct. 7, confirmed the investigator’s belief the wildfire started somewhere on or near that residential property.

Five takeaways from Cal Fire’s report on 2020 Glass fire

The cause of the fire is officially undetermined, in part because of damage to evidence at the scene where it is believed to have started.

Investigators could not rule out the possibility the fire started in electrical panels associated with a water system on residential property off North Fork Crystal Springs Road in Napa County.

Investigators have ruled out electrical wiring and equipment in vineyard fencing at Cakebread Vineyards property off North Fork Crystal Springs Road.

Investigators have ruled out PG&E power equipment.

The Cal Fire investigation concluded that two secondary wildfires, initially called the Shady and Boysen fires, that ignited on the west side of Napa Valley more than 15 hours after the Glass fire started on the valley’s east side were caused by embers broadcast by the Glass fire.

Read the report

Glass fire facts

Began Sept. 27, 2020, in eastern Napa County

Burned 67,484 acres

Destroyed 1,555 structures, including 334 Sonoma County homes (about 30 in Santa Rosa) and 308 Napa County homes

Damaged about 30 winery properties

Fully contained on Oct. 20

It wasn’t until Nov. 14 that an investigator for the adjoining property’s owner brought Cal Fire’s attention to the water tanks and nearby electrical panels.

The panels had been damaged, as had their wood framing and areas on a nearby fence, Uboldi wrote.

Some of the electrical equipment was still being examined at least as late as March, but inspectors were unable to locate possible ignition sources, Uboldi said.

Most of the catastrophic blazes that have erupted in California in recent years have been caused by power lines and equipment operated by PG&E, including the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County and the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County. PG&E equipment was found to have caused most of the major fires that broke out in the October 2017 firestorm that destroyed more than 5,300 Sonoma County homes, though the deadliest and most destructive of those fires, the Tubbs, ignited in electrical wiring on private property outside Calistoga, according to Cal Fire.

PG&E has said there was no indication its equipment was involved with starting the Glass fire, and Uboldi reported that he rule out some PG&E infrastructure next to the fire’s suspected origin point.

Rachelle Brooke had just retired as an apparatus engineer from Santa Rosa when the Glass fire destroyed her family’s log home of St. Helena Road. She said she had talked to a couple of firefighters who responded to the initial Glass fire callout.

“I haven’t heard anyone even speculating about PG&E,” she said.

Caryn Fried, 72, whose 4-acre property off Highway 12 was destroyed by the fire, said she really hasn’t given much thought to the what caused of the fire. She simply doesn’t have the “energy” for it, she said.

She and her husband Wayne Reynolds, 82, have had a difficult time since they lost their home and business, s Valley of the Moon Pottery, a popular attraction in Sonoma Valley. She said their main focus has been finding another place to live and avoiding the long, arduous process of rebuilding.

“You don’t know how much time you have on this planet,” she said. “I want to move on with my life.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her home in the 2017 Nuns fire, sympathized with those who may have held out hope of some clearer conclusion from Cal Fire. Some wildfires never reveal their clear cause, she said.

“This is going to be disappointing to many, many people who lost their homes and sustained significant property damage from the Glass Fire, both in Napa County and certainly wide swaths of the First District in Sonoma County,” she said.

Keith Rhinehart lost the home on Los Alamos where he grew up and where his mother, who is in her 90s, was living. He said he wasn’t looking to Cal Fire for closure.

“Closure for us is when my mom gets back home, and I’m hoping that within 30 days she’ll be back in her home before the first anniversary,” he said.

Rhinehart said he can live with the unanswered question of what or who caused the fire.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I'm not looking for somebody to sue. It would be nice if PG&E were somehow responsible, but if they're not, they're not. That's just life.”

You can reach Mary Callahan at mary.callahan @pressdemocrat.com. @MaryCallahanB. You can reach Martin Espinoza at martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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