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Cal Fire identifies privately owned pole for Tubbs Fire ignition; PG&E cleared

by Matthias Gafni |

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — State of California fire investigators announced Thursday that the deadly 2017 Tubbs Fire that swept through Santa Rosa and killed 22 people was caused by a “private electrical system” centered around a woodpecker-weakened pole — and not PG&E as was widely speculated.

Lead Cal Fire investigator John Martinez wrote in his 80-page report that the fire started adjacent to a home at 1128 Bennett Lane in Calistoga, and was an “electrical-caused fire originating from an unknown event affecting privately owned conductor or equipment.” A caretaker of the property said the privately-owned wooden pole that distributed power throughout the rural property was so deteriorated that he planned to replace it the next spring.

“(It was) just about to be replaced because it had been woodpeckered so damned bad, but it was here and it was holding,” caretaker Mike Andrews told investigators, according to the report.

When asked why it was to be replaced: “Well, because we were afraid of it falling over,” Andrews told investigators. Neither Andrews nor the property owner could be reached Thursday for comment.

Despite being cleared in the Tubbs Fire, state fire investigators have determined the company’s equipment caused 17 of the infernos in the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in 2017.

Cal Fire is also investigating if a failure of PG&E equipment sparked the deadly Camp Fire last November in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive in state history, where 86 people perished.

The deadly Tubbs Fire ignited on the evening of Oct. 8, 2017, in Sonoma County, burning a total of 36,807 acres and destroying 5,636 structures before it was extinguished. Some damage estimates are as high as $1.2 billion.

Cal Fire investigators said they could not identify any violations of state law related to the fire but said all other possible ignition points, including those involving PG&E equipment on the property, had been eliminated. The determination could alleviate some of the potential liability against the beleaguered utility company, which is leaning toward bankruptcy after being linked to a number of deadly and destructive blazes over the past two fire seasons.

“Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade,” PG&E said Thursday in a prepared release.

Santa Rosa lawyer James Frantz, who is suing PG&E on behalf of some 400 people within the Tubbs Fire zone, disputes the new findings and says the 80-page report is not admissible in court. He is listed as a witness in the Cal Fire report as someone who believes there are “alternative origin areas ... determined by outside investigators.”

“The private wire theory has been out there for about a year now, and our view is that that is not an accurate finding,” Frantz said Thursday. “And I find it very suspicious that it would come out within five days of when PG&E is going to file for bankruptcy. There may be some political underpinning of why that report came out that way.”

His own experts are still investigating, he said, but are confident it was PG&E’s fault.

“I think the report is faulty,” he said. “I think it’s incomplete and it’s really hearsay.”

San Francisco-based PG&E faces a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing as soon as next week as it faces a mountain of debts and liabilities — including unknown amounts of payouts to fire victims — in the wake of catastrophic and deadly wildfires that scorched Northern California in 2017 and 2018. By some estimates, the claims and litigation could reach $30 billion.

The state findings on the Tubbs Fire suggest the company’s financial woes could be eased, said state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat and frequent PG&E critic whose district includes parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

“The liabilities of PG&E are greatly reduced by this finding,” Sen. Hill said. “There is absolutely no need for a bailout for PG&E. There might not even be a reason for PG&E to file for bankruptcy.”

Moody’s Investors Service, the bond credit rating service, still exercised caution Thursday after the Cal Fire report exonerated PG&E.

“While today’s announcement that PG&E facilities did not cause the 2017 Tubbs wildfire could reduce its total liabilities, the company continues to face additional litigation and extensive legal responsibilities for other wildfires,” said Jeff Cassella, Moody’s vice president and senior credit officer. “PG&E’s numerous regulatory, legislative and credit challenges are largely unchanged, and we still expect them to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the next few days.”

Wall Street enjoyed Thursday’s news, and PG&E saw its stock close up almost 75 percent on the day at nearly $14 a share. That was despite one of its largest investors demanding the entire board of directors be ousted.

PG&E has also warned federal Judge William Alsup, who is monitoring the utility’s probation following its conviction in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, that it would have to raise customer rates five-fold if it was forced to follow the massive inspection effort the judge proposed as a possible additional condition of probation.

The effort would entail a thorough inspection of the company’s electricity grid and then launch a wide-ranging vegetation management plan ahead of the upcoming 2019 fire season in Northern California. In a court filing, PG&E warned it would have to spend at least $75 billion and hire 650,000 workers.

In December, PG&E wrote in a court filing it believed its equipment was not responsible for the Tubbs Fire and determined that the privately installed electrical equipment at the same Bennett Lane property was the likely culprit.

The fire was first reported at 9:41 p.m. Oct. 8 at the corner of Highway 128 and Tubbs Lane, about a mile away from Bennett Lane.

Martinez, a Cal Fire battalion chief from the San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit, along with his colleagues, interviewed 43 witnesses to the fire, ranging from neighbors to electrical engineers to the family of the property owner.

In the report, Martinez detailed the complicated electrical system on the Bennett Lane property. A half-acre clearing on the 10.5-acre property included a PG&E power pole that sent power to the main residence through a service drop to the roof, which linked to the owner’s meter.

The power continued to the privately-owned pole that had been weakened by woodpeckers. That pole sent power to the owner’s wine cellar and pool patio. The wires continued to two more private poles that took electricity to water tanks and a pump station. Finally, the wires traveled back downhill toward Bennett Lane and stopped at a well.

Based on witness accounts, investigators quickly narrowed the origin of the fire to somewhere near the Bennett Lane property. By mapping burn patterns and char marks on the property, they narrowed the ignition point down to the pole adjacent to the main house, eliminating different areas along the way, according to the report.

Investigators also found a 2015 Cal Fire defensible space report identifying two violations on the property addressing clearance of trees and brush in the area. There was no documentation that a follow-up inspection was done.

Paul Harrell, a retired PG&E lineman who lived near the property, said when he and his wife looked out their window that night, it looked like the early flames were coming from that area.

“To hear it was at that house – it’s good to have answers, you know?” said Harrell, who lives on a ranch two miles from the ignition point.

As destructive as the fire was, “I would say that the wind event that occurred was like an act of Mother Nature, God – whatever you want to say,” he said.