PD Editorial: Finding blame for the cataclysmic Wine Country fires

Firefighters protect a structure off Tubbs lane in Calistoga, near the origin of the Tubbs fire, Sunday Oct. 8, 2017. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017


As today’s Tom Meyer political cartoon suggests, locals have rolled out the usual suspects in an effort to find fault for the fires that have devastated this region.

Were those fierce Diablo winds primarily to blame? Certainly they contributed to this catastrophe in a major way by pushing the flames of the Tubbs fire up over the mountains from the Napa Valley at speeds of up to 50 mph and sending them crashing through Fountaingrove at such velocity that they jumped Highway 101 and poured over the Coffey Park neighborhood.

Was it global warming? There’s no disputing the toll that climate change has taken on California, leaving some regions, like ours, a tinderbox, susceptible to intense firestorms.

Was it arson? That, too, can’t be ruled out even though it’s unlikely to end up being the work of a single individual such as the one that alt-right web sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars claim was responsible. These news gossip sites have sought to pin responsibility for these fires that have claimed at least 23 lives in Sonoma County and destroyed more than 6,800 structures, on a homeless man who was arrested for starting a fire in Sonoma a week ago. He would be a politically convenient scapegoat given that the individual happens to be an undocumented immigrant, the source of many of the world’s evils, at least according to these extremist sites.

But the one organization that is receiving most of the assumed blame is Pacific Gas and Electric Co. On Tuesday, a couple who lost their home in Coffey Park filed a lawsuit against the company claiming it is responsible for the blaze. Wayne and Jennifer Harvell allege that the utility failed to properly maintain and repair high-voltage power lines, which they contend came in contact with dry vegetation, touching off the Tubbs fire.

It may be true that PG&E holds responsibility for these fires, but suspicion is not evidence, and we all would be better served in these tense times if we refrained from casting judgment until the two major investigations now underway into the cause of the fires are completed. This could take weeks or every months.

Certainly, PG&E is an easy target given that the California Public Utilities Commission recently fined the utility company $8.3 million after a Cal Fire investigation found PG&E responsible for the 2015 Butte fire, which claimed two lives and destroyed 549 homes. The investigation found that the fire started because of a tree that fell into a power line near the community of Jackson.

But readers also shouldn’t forget that it was just five years ago that PG&E came through the area with a plan to clear vegetation away from its power lines, only to encounter some stiff opposition. Some landowners concerned about the new maintenance program, which targeted thousands of trees along a 39-mile corridor through Sonoma County, even went so far as to hire an attorney to combat the plan.

The point here is not to revisit that dispute or to suggest that any of the opposition may have contributed in some way to this fire. The arguments on both sides of the vegetation plan had merit.

We offer this merely to suggest that while locals may crave a clear answer for what was to blame for this fire, one may not be forthcoming. It could end up being be a combination of factors or it could be something that has yet to be considered. All we know is that until the answers come in, we all need to rely less on speculation and more on two things that seem to be in short supply these days — patience and restraint.