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.
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.”