PG&E power lines sparked two October fires in Santa Rosa, city says in first investigation
Santa Rosa city fire investigators have determined that PG&E power lines buffeted by heavy winds the night of Oct. 8 ignited at least two small fires in city neighborhoods, marking the first public reports by government authorities into what caused some of the dozens of blazes that erupted that night and became the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history.
The findings, outlined in records obtained by The Press Democrat, focus on two smaller, lesser-known fires that burned separately from the large blazes that swept across the North Bay late Oct 8. and early Oct. 9, destroying 6,200 homes and claiming 40 lives.
In both cases - a fire that destroyed two homes on Sullivan Way near Howarth Park and another quarter-acre fire that damaged an outbuilding at a Montessori school on Brush Creek Road - investigators with the Santa Rosa Fire Department ruled that strong winds caused the PG&E’s power lines to arc, throw sparks and set fire to dry vegetation.
“It was determined that the fire damage to the site was a direct result of the high winds causing the power lines to arc, starting a fire in the combustible vegetation,” Fire Marshal Scott Moon wrote in his narrative statement about the Brush Creek blaze.
The city reports, completed late last year and early this year, comes as parallel investigations by Cal Fire and the state Public Utilities Commission continue into the cause of the devastating fires. Those inquiries, expected to hold the most sway in assigning any responsibility for the fires’ causes, could be months or more away from completion, according to state officials.
In the meantime, Santa Rosa fire investigators found that three main factors combined to cause the pair of neighborhood fires Oct. 8: powerful, dry winds that night, a landscape parched by drought and live electrical equipment that set fire to surrounding brush.
“The winds were definitely a contributing factor to the causes,” Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said. Gusts peaked at dawn on Oct. 9 at 68 mph within city limits, according to federal weather data.
“If we didn’t have the winds, we wouldn’t have had these issues,” Lowenthal said.
The city reports describe the fires’ causes as acts of nature, but investigators clearly conclude that sparks from arcing power lines controlled by PG&E started the fires. In one of the fires, arcing power lines continued to spark new flames as firefighters worked to put out existing ones, prompting a response from PG&E crews, investigators noted.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras declined to comment on the new reports or the mounting number of lawsuits filed by burned-out residents against the utility giant in connection with October’s fires.
“What I can tell you at this point is that there has been no determination on the causes of the fires (under investigation by the state) and we remain focused on doing everything we can to help Sonoma County recover and rebuild,” Contreras said Friday.
More than 100 lawsuits filed by displaced residents are pending before a San Francisco judge claiming the utility failed to maintain and repair its power lines and prepare for the kind of high winds that were forecast and arrived that night.
In addition, Sonoma County government officials last week announced their plans to sue PG&E, seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages to compensate for debris removal costs and damaged infrastructure. Napa, Solano, Yuba, Lake and Mendocino counties are expected to join the case, officials said.
Insurance claims from the Northern California fires have grown to $10 billion, with the largest share of losses in Sonoma County, where 5,130 homes burned and 24 people were killed.
Santa Rosa city officials have yet to signal whether they will join the legal fray. City Attorney Sue Gallagher said the City Council “is reviewing its options but has made no decision regarding potential litigation against PG&E.”
In public reports to state regulators, PG&E identified damaged power poles and downed power lines it owns in areas near the origins of the biggest blazes, including the Tubbs fire that started north of Calistoga and spread into Santa Rosa, leveling the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods and killing 22 people.
The smaller fires on Brush Creek Road and Sullivan Way in east Santa Rosa were first reported before the massive Tubbs fire reached city limits about 1 a.m., critical timing because firefighting resources were still available; within hours they would be maxed out, with local crews stretched thin across a 40-mile front in Sonoma County.