PG&E is building case that the Tubbs fire was caused by a landowner’s power equipment
This story was published Jan. 2, 2019:
In newly filed court documents this week, PG&E has again pressed its case that private power equipment outside of Calistoga may have caused the Tubbs fire, the most destructive and deadly of the 2017 North Bay wildfires.
The filing builds on an explanation PG&E first offered last year for the cause of the Tubbs fire, naming the landowner the utility suspects responsible for causing the blaze and singling out a caretaker who PG&E said was not licensed for electrical work done on the property, including repairs to a power pole about eight months before the fire.
The new details, made public in a court filing Monday, are included in a PG&E report that outlines the utility’s investigation into 22 major Northern California wildfires from October two years ago.
State investigators remain at work on their report into the cause of the Tubbs fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties, most of them homes.
But the suspected origin of the inferno — at a rural residential property on Bennett Lane north of Calistoga — has long been known. The area was placed under guard even as the fires burned, and state investigators later seized damaged power equipment from the area.
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 two years ago, was theirs.
Yet PG&E has concluded it was privately owned and maintained equipment branching off its own power pole to a property owned by Ann Zink that triggered the Tubbs fire, according to the utility’s court filing.
“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.”
Michael Andrews, who PG&E 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 court filing.
In February 2017, he authorized repair work on a power 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 Wednesday.
A message left at a phone number listed for Zink went unreturned Wednesday. Zink, 91, now lives in Riverside County and has said that the property was unoccupied at the time of the fire, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Andrews could not be reached Wednesday.
PG&E’s investigative report was based on witness statements and photos, 911 transcripts and the utility’s work reports and logs. It was included in the court filing at the request of a San Francisco-based U.S. District Court judge exploring whether PG&E may have violated a five-year probation period stemming from the explosion nine years ago of a pipeline it owned in San Bruno, which killed eight people.
A court-appointed independent auditor is poised to use the documents to assess the utility’s general safety culture, risk management and compliance and ethics. The filing comes nearly 15 months after a series of major fires erupted across PG&E’s Northern California service territory on the hot, dry, windy night of Oct. 8, 2017. The Tubbs fire raced over the mountains dividing Napa and Sonoma counties, wiping out rural homes before leveling whole neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, where more than 3,000 homes were destroyed inside city limits.
More than 3,000 plaintiffs have sued PG&E, blaming it for sparking the fires. The embattled utility expects liabilities could reach $17 billion. Damage from the Tubbs fire could top $8 billion in Sonoma County.
Will Powers, a Cal Fire spokesman, said Wednesday the agency could provide no additional information about its investigation into the Tubbs fire while it remains underway. He said no timetable exists for release of the report.
Cal Fire has determined PG&E power lines and equipment sparked at least 17 of 2017's major wildfires. In 11 of those cases, Cal Fire said its investigators found evidence showing the utility was in violation of state safety laws, forwarding the reports to local prosecutors for review.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.