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California seeks $90 million from PG&E over Butte fire

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SAN FRANCISCO — California officials say they will seek more than $90 million in firefighting costs from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. after finding that a deadly 2015 fire was sparked by a tree that came into contact with a power line.

The utility said it accepts the cause but says it is not clear that it was to blame for the tree failing.

The $90 million is the largest recovery sought by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which released a report Thursday detailing the cause of the fire that scorched remote Calaveras and Amador counties, about 125 miles east of San Francisco.

The blaze that started Sept. 9 burned for three weeks, killing two people and destroying more than 900 structures, including about 550 homes. The 110-square-mile fire caused an estimated $300 million in insured losses and is the seventh-most destructive wildfire in state history.

Cal Fire said the state’s largest utility and its contractors failed to provide proper maintenance after removing two gray pine trees from a stand in January 2015, exposing a weaker, skinnier interior tree.

The 44-foot-tall gray pine tree grew taller, seeking the sun, but it eventually slumped into a power line, according to the report.

But PG&E said in a statement later Thursday that based on its own review “we do not believe it is clear what caused the tree to fail or that vegetation management practices fell short.”

The state’s finding did not surprise Steve Campora, a Sacramento attorney who represents roughly 900 people suing San Francisco-based PG&E for fire-related losses. He said about 17 law firms throughout the state are representing about 1,800 people whose claims include loss of enjoyment of land and loss of treasured collections, including a telephone collection.

“One family has been on the property since 1862, and it burned. Luckily, the family home survived, but it burned 900 acres,” he said.

In a statement, a PG&E spokesman said the company was reviewing Thursday’s report. “We cooperated fully with Cal Fire in its investigation on the source of the ignition for the Butte fire. We are committed to doing the right thing for our customers and will respond in the normal legal process,” Matt Nauman said.

This is not the largest amount sought or recouped by an agency for wildfire costs. The U.S. Attorney’s office that covers the eastern district of California collected $102 million from Union Pacific Railroad in 2008 for a wildfire that torched Plumas and Lassen counties in 2000.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors issued a statement Thursday saying it would seek “hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation” from the utility. The board said it also will ask the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the company, for an investigation and penalties.

Public Utilities Commission Chairman Michael Picker said last year that the utility continued to rack up accidents, some of them fatal, and questioned whether PG&E lacked a culture of safety that made the utility’s leadership accountable.

In 2010, a natural gas pipeline explosion rocked San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, killing eight people and destroying more than three dozen homes. The explosion resulted in a record $1.6 billion state penalty against the company.

Cal Fire has spent $400 million this fiscal year battling wildfires.

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