Electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) caused the Camp Fire in the Northern California town of Paradise last year that killed 85 people, destroyed 18,804 structures and burned 153,336 acres, Cal Fire investigators have determined.
The Camp Fire, which started the morning of Nov. 8, was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.
PG&E did not respond immediately to the Cal Fire report.
Cal Fire investigators said in a statement Wednesday that the fire started in the early morning hours near the community of Pulga in Butte County.
“The tinder-dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico,” Cal Fire said in a statement.
Cal Fire said the investigation identified a second ignition site near the intersection of Concow Road and Rim Road. “The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E,” Cal Fire said. “This fire was consumed by the original fire which started earlier near Pulga.”
The Camp Fire investigative report was forwarded to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, Cal Fire said.
In an interview with The Desert Sun on Wednesday, Ramsey said the report sent to his office is “largely symbolic.”
“This report doesn’t change the scope or arc of our ongoing investigation to determine whether there’s criminal liability on the part of PG&E or its personnel,” he said.
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Ramsey said it could be “weeks” or “months” before the investigation is completed.
Gerald Singleton, an attorney based near San Diego, represents more than 2,000 people impacted by the Camp Fire.
He said the Cal Fire report underscores the utility’s safety lapses in the last decade, including a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Singleton said he wasn’t a fan of PG&E staying in business if it requests limitations on liability and seeks a bailout.
“If PG&E can’t make a profit and still be safe,” he said, “then they should go out of business.”
The Camp Fire was one of more than 7,571 wildfires that burned over 1.8 million acres across California in 2018, Cal Fire said.
Chris Dicus, professor of wildland fire and fuels management at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, said investigating the fire sources is a “sophisticated” ordeal.
“It’s very much like CSI, where you’re trying to piece together all the clues and one clue leads to the next,” he said.
The most common source of destructive wildfires in recent years has been utilities, he said. Strong winds can push vegetation or throw debris into power lines.
Even with the recent large wildfires, more Californians could come face-to-face with similar blazes in the future.
“Regardless of ignition source, most of California should expect a wildfire affecting them at some point in their lifetime,” Dicus said.
Earlier this year, as investigators were looking into the Camp Fire’s cause, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. filed for voluntary reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy laws.
The San Francisco-headquartered utility serves 16 million residents in northern and central California. The utility has continued to provide electric and natural gas service for customers while it reorganizes. Employees will continue to receive pay and healthcare benefits as usual, the company said.
CEO Geisha Williams resigned in January as expectations rose that PG&E would declare insolvency as it faced potentially billions of dollars in liability over its role in the recent California wildfires. State fire investigators blamed the utility’s power lines for causing a number of California wildfires in October 2017.
In early May, PG&E reported first-quarter results and said it was spending heavily on “enhanced and accelerated electric asset inspection costs, clean-up and repair costs related to the 2018 Camp Fire, legal and other costs related to the 2017 Northern California wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire, and financing, legal, and other costs related to PG&E Corporation’s … reorganization cases under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.”
The same day, the company named Bill Johnson as CEO. Previously, Johnson served president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Wednesday’s Cal Fire announcement came on the same day Johnson testified before a legislative committee in Sacramento. Johnson told the state Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee he had expected the utility would be blamed for the fire.
“I have made the assumption when I got here that PG&E equipment caused the fire,” he said, noting the utility had said that was probable in recent filings. “It’s a disappointment that this happened. Let’s not do it again.”
PG&E’s reorganization plan is due by the end of May, but the utility has requested an extension until November.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said PG&E shouldn’t get an extra six months to reorganize.
In a Wednesday court filing, Newsom said the utility’s request continues to show it lacks an urgent focus on improving safety. He’s asking the court to instead grant an extension through August.
Newsom and lawmakers are working on proposals around utility liability for wildfires that could affect the bankruptcy.
In the company’s May earnings announcement, Johnson said: “The people of California look to PG&E to provide safe electric and natural gas service, and this remains our most important responsibility. Over the last several months, the company has heard the calls for change, and has executed a number of actions that position PG&E to be able to address the evolving needs of California.”
“As we position PG&E for the long term, we are continuing to implement programs that will make the communities we serve safer in the face of extreme weather and wildfire risk while also recognizing that significant work remains to be done as our state collectively confronts the coming wildfire season and the challenges of climate change,” he added.
The company said in its first quarter 2019 earnings report that in the first three months of the year it incurred costs of $192 million related to the Camp Fire. This included $179 million for cleanup and repair costs and $13 million for legal and other costs.
The company said it incurred costs of $210 million during the three months ending March 31 for incremental operating expenses related to enhanced and accelerated inspections and repairs of electric transmission and distribution assets.
And it had costs of $127 million directly associated with its Chapter 11 proceedings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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