Cal Fire blames PG&E for multiple North Bay wildfires
In an announcement that rocked the state’s largest utility, PG&E was found to be involved in causing multiple fatal fires that were part of the devastating Wine Country infernos in October, government investigators said Friday.
The embattled utility, which has been struggling to right itself since causing a fatal explosion in San Bruno in 2010, now is deemed to bear a measure of responsibility for blazes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte and Lake counties because its equipment and facilities were involved in 12 of the fires, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Among the fires in which PG&E equipment — mostly power lines that came in contact with trees — was found to have played a role: the Atlas Fire in Napa County, which led to six fatalities; the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County, which caused nine deaths; and a merged set of fires in Sonoma and Napa counties that led to three fatalities, according to Cal Fire.
While the release did not say explicitly that PG&E was negligent in the fires, it suggested strongly that violations of state fire safety codes were involved by raising the possibility of criminal prosecution in connection with the blazes. State code requires power lines to be well maintained and vegetation to be trimmed to a safe distance from the lines.
“Cal Fire’s investigations have been referred to the appropriate county District Attorney’s offices for review in eight of the 12 fires – Sulphur, Blue, Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe, Pocket and Atlas – due to evidence of alleged violations of state law,” the agency said. The counties involved in these instances of prosecutorial referrals are Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Humboldt.
The investigation of the Tubbs fire, which leveled large portions of Santa Rosa and was the deadliest of the blazes, is not yet complete, Cal Fire said.
The North Bay fires in October killed 44, burned at least 245,000 acres and caused at least $9.4 billion in insured losses.
For PG&E, being assigned responsibility for the fires could be catastrophic, since they are estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage. The mere possibility of such a finding has caused the company’s stock to plummet in recent months.
In recent years, judges have found that, under California law, it is not even necessary for a utility to be deemed negligent in order for it to be held financially liable for fire damage sparked by its equipment.
“PG&E has been trying to duck responsibility for the fires, blaming everything from climate change to local fire departments and the state’s liability laws,” said Patrick McCallum, chairman of Up From the Ashes, a coalition of fire victims. “Cal Fire’s report puts the blame where it belongs — squarely on PG&E — confirming it was responsible for many of the fires that devastated so many lives.”
The utility has said that wildfires are a “new normal” for California due to climate change. However, state Sen. Jerry Hill, who frequently has criticized PG&E in the wake of the San Bruno blast, said Cal Fire’s conclusions suggest the company is far from a hapless bystander.
“The old normal is still in place, which means PG&E once again is negligent,” Hill said. “The investigation’s conclusions show that PG&E is still acting in the old-fashioned way of being negligent and violating state law.”
San Francisco-based PG&E, in a quest led by its chief executive officer Geisha Williams, has been attempting through an array of efforts in legislative, regulatory and legal venues to upend rules that now make it harder to pass the costs of wildfire liabilities along to customers in the form of higher monthly energy bills.
“We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire reports to understand the agency’s perspectives,” the utility said in a prepared release. “Based on the information we have so far, we continue to believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards.”
Rebuild with Resilience, a coalition of insurance companies, called on state lawmakers to ensure that PG&E doesn’t shovel the wildfire responsibilities on its customers in the form of higher monthly power bills.
“Legislators should protect Californians’ pocketbooks and prioritize public safety over private profits for the investor-owned utilities by ensuring the utilities are held accountable for the damage caused,” the coalition said. “This finding makes clear that utilities must invest in the equipment upgrades, tools and procedures that protect communities and families from the risks of their operations.”
Cal Fire determined that Sonoma County’s Pocket Fire occurred because a tree broke and contacted PG&E power lines, while Napa County’s Atlas Fire happened after a tree or portions of trees fell into the same PG&E power line in two different locations.
In addition, merged fires in Sonoma and Napa counties were caused in several instances by trees or parts of trees falling into PG&E power lines or other equipment; in one instance, a fire was triggered by a downed power line after PG&E attempted to re-energize the collapsed line.
State fire investigators also found that Mendocino County’s Redwood Fire was caused by trees or parts of trees falling into PG&E power lines, Lake County’s Sulphur Fire was caused by the failure of a PG&E power pole that resulted in power lines and equipment contacting the ground, Butte County’s Cherokee Fire resulted from tree limbs contacting PG&E power lines, Sonoma County’s 37 Fire was electrical in origin and linked to PG&E distribution lines, and Humboldt County’s Blue Fire began when a PG&E power line conductor separated from a connector that caused equipment to fall and cause a ground fire.
“This is a wholesale indictment of PG&E,” said Frank Pitre, an attorney for fire victims who have sued the utility. “PG&E had poor risk-management practices, they had no policy or practice in place to deactivate reclosers or reactivating lines. This is not an isolated incident. This is a failure of management. This is a culture that hasn’t changed.” ... (To read the entire article, please click HERE)