Cal Fire says Tubbs fire caused by private electrical system, not PG&E

A private electrical system next to a Napa County home, not PG&E power equipment, ignited the deadly Tubbs fire that devastated Santa Rosa in 2017, the state’s fire service announced Thursday in a determination that upended widely held suspicions about the fire’s cause and reverberated from Wall Street to the West Coast.

Cal Fire’s long-awaited conclusion indicates the Tubbs fire was the lone major wildfire among 18 that broke out during the 2017 Northern California firestorm that wasn’t caused by PG&E’s electrical grid, according to the state.

The finding represents a significant blow to thousands of fire survivors and local governments in the North Bay that sued PG&E hoping to recoup billions of dollars in losses.

The devastating Oct. 8, 2017, blaze erupted near Calistoga and swept across the Mayacamas Mountains into Santa Rosa, burning 36,807 acres, destroying 5,636 structures and killing 22 people. It was the most destructive blaze in state history at the time, surpassed now only by the deadly Camp fire last year in Butte County.

Cal Fire’s report is the result of a 16-month investigation that looked as much at what didn’t cause the fire as what did. Investigators noted in the state’s report that the Tubbs fire destroyed key pieces of electrical equipment at the fire’s origin on a 10-acre property off Bennett Lane north of Calistoga. Examining burn patterns, witness statements and other evidence, the lead investigator determined it “unlikely PG&E equipment is responsible for causing the Tubbs fire.”

The fire started with a weakened telephone pole adjacent to the main house, according to the report. A caretaker for the property told investigators the pole had been “wood-peckered so damn bad” and was slated to be replaced in the spring.

Cal Fire spokesman Michael Mohler said the investigation was one of Cal Fire’s most extensive, requiring “several thousand hours” of work, with an origin area heavily scorched by fire.

“From our investigator’s opinion it came from a private system. It did not come from a public system,” said Mohler.

Neither Ann Zink, the landowner, who now lives in Riverside, nor Michael Andrews, the caretaker for the property, could be immediately reached Thursday. Zink said previously the property was unoccupied at the time of the fire.

Investigators ‘apolitical’

The state had previously found PG&E at fault in at least 17 other major fires that ignited that night in October 2017 in a firestorm stretching from Sonoma County to Yuba County in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Many had expected a similar conclusion for the Tubbs fire.

PG&E stock rose nearly 75 percent Thursday as investors speculated the Cal Fire report would improve the utility’s dire financial condition. Before Thursday, PG&E had estimated it was exposed to more than $30 billion in potential liability for its role in wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The Tubbs fire alone accounted for as much as $17 billion of those potential costs, Gov. Gavin Newsom estimated Thursday.

Newsom, responding to the report in a press conference outside his office, called the investigative teams leading the most closely watched report on the 2017 fires “competent” and “apolitical.”

“From the victims’ perspective, there are a lot of open-ended questions,” Newsom said. “My focus is now not on PG&E, it is on … a safe, reliable and affordable service and to make sure we have the backs of those victims, for those who have lost family members and personal possessions and things they hold dear.”

Setback for victims

The report validates a defense PG&E has mounted in court and regulatory filings. It represents a stunning setback, albeit one with uncertain repercussions, for the survivors who filed suit against PG&E. It is also a blow to governments, including the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, which have sought tens of millions of dollars in aid from state and federal agencies to cover mounting fire costs.

In a statement that referenced first the loss of life and property from the Tubbs fire, PG&E noted it had been cleared by state investigators but said the company’s many challenges remained significant.

In 11 of the wildfires that sparked in 2017, PG&E could be held criminally negligent because the utility hadn’t followed state safety laws, according to Cal Fire. In the Tubbs fire, however, investigators found no violations of state law.

“Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses during these devastating wildfires is heartbreaking, and we remain focused on helping affected communities recover and rebuild,” the utility’s statement said. “The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, and we are committed to assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and help protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires.”

The San Francisco-based utility, California’s largest, has announced plans to seek protection from creditors by filing bankruptcy, in large part because of the liability related to its ties to destructive fires. The Cal Fire finding does not change the situation, it noted.

“Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade,” the company stated. “Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims.”

For some people who lost their homes and worldly possessions in the Tubbs fire, Cal Fire’s conclusion didn’t dislodge a conviction that PG&E remains responsible because of its failure to institute safety measures like power shutdowns credited with preventing fires for years in Southern California.

Findings challenged

“You’re expecting to hear a certain sound, and you get a clang,” said Santa Rosa-based attorney Roy Miller, whose home in Wikiup burned to the ground in the Tubbs fire. “It doesn’t square with what we went through that night.”

Miller leads one of the legal teams suing PG&E on behalf of displaced residents, and he challenged Cal Fire’s findings, noting they diverged from those reached by private fire investigators hired for the 1,200 plaintiffs represented by his firm.

Cal Fire’s redacted 80-page investigative report outlined the step-by-step process a series of investigators took in their analyses of the Bennett Lane property.

Investigators said the fire ignited with power lines and equipment adjacent to the main house, but found no state law violations related to the cause of the fire.

Witness reports and burn patterns led investigators up a long driveway onto the property and eventually to a PG&E power pole and line drop to private electrical equipment serving electricity to a main residence, water pumps and other structures.

Cal Fire investigators analyzed what equipment remained - much was destroyed - and burn patterns in a complex analysis that ruled out PG&E equipment as the cause, leaving private power equipment failure as the prevailing theory.

The report noted that the conductor on one of the private power poles “did not appear professionally installed,” but did not directly implicate that wiring for sparking the fire. It also mentioned that a ?2015 inspection at the property for fire safety resulted in two violations for overgrown vegetation.

“I eliminated all other causes for the Tubbs fire, with the exception of an electrical caused fire originating from an unknown event affecting privately owned conductor or equipment,” wrote the lead investigator, Battalion Chief John Martinez.

Regardless of Cal Fire’s findings, Miller, the Santa Rosa attorney, said PG&E failed to utilize basic safety measures in October 2017 - when forecasters gave several days’ notice about high fire danger, including hot, dry weather and strong winds.

“I’m the one writing six-figure checks to my contractor to rebuild my home that burned down and almost us with it,” Miller said. “This isn’t over. I’m disappointed in the conclusion and I don’t think it’s correct.”

Decided in court

Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa attorney with Watts Guerra, said her firm represents more than 2,000 individuals suing PG&E related to the 2017 firestorm, including several hundred who lost property in the Tubbs fire. While she said Thursday’s development was disappointing, it was a possibility for which they planned.

“Their report’s not conclusive as a matter of law,” Evans said of Cal Fire’s investigation. “Nothing has changed. We would have of course preferred Cal Fire determine that PG&E equipment caused the Tubbs fire, but we always knew it was a possibility that they wouldn’t, which is why we conducted our investigation from the outset.”

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, also said Cal Fire’s investigative report would not be the end for governments seeking to recoup costs stemming from the fires and a long recovery.

“What does it mean and how do we go forward? It’s too early to tell,” he said. “At the end of the day, as much as I respect Cal Fire and the work they’ve done, it’s not a definitive cause. It still needs to be determined in court. There are lots of people that will have other opinions and want to talk about other evidence.”

Former Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, who led the city during the fires and through the first year of recovery, said Cal Fire’s conclusion took him by surprise and will take some time to set in.

“What it reminds us is that we all have to figure out a better way to live with our need for electricity,” Coursey said. “Whether it’s a private property or a public utility, the impacts can be the same.”

Backs PG&E conclusion

PG&E officials admitted to regulators in late 2017 that at least some of the damaged equipment found near the origin of the Tubbs fire, as well as two other fires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties, was theirs.

Yet PG&E concluded the Tubbs fire was triggered by privately owned and maintained equipment branching off its own power pole to a rural residential property on Bennett Lane north of Calistoga, according to a utility court filing earlier this month.

“The evidence supports the conclusion that this equipment, located beyond PG&E’s service delivery point, was planned, designed, installed, maintained and operated by third parties, not PG&E,” the utility stated in its report. “After the service delivery point, and therefore after the point at which PG&E had legal responsibility for operation … Ms. Zink owned and maintained private electrical equipment.”

Andrews, who PG&E and Cal Fire identified as the property’s caretaker, was responsible for maintenance of power equipment on the property but had no electrical training and was not licensed for the work, according to the utility’s court filing.

In February 2017, he authorized repair work on a utility pole on the property that was completed by a Kelseyville-based general engineering contractor who also lacked an electrical license from the state, according to the court filing.

“Based on the evidence that PG&E has reviewed to date, we believe that customer-owned equipment may have been the cause of the Tubbs fire,” the company said in a statement earlier this month.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes parts of the Tubbs burn area, said the Cal Fire finding was “obviously good news for PG&E,” noting there remain “so many other areas where PG&E has been found at fault.”

Dodd said PG&E still must make major corporate changes, but added that the finding could allow the company to avoid bankruptcy.

“I do not believe it alters my call to PG&E to create new leadership and board members to create a culture of safety,” Dodd said.

Staff writers Kevin Fixler, Guy Kovner, Hannah Beausang and Alexandria Bordas contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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