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Utility company officially to blame for massive Northern California fire

by Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee |

It’s official. Pacific Gas & Electric caused the Camp Fire.

State fire officials announced Wednesday a six-month investigation has determined what many already thought: PG&E power lines in the high hills of Northern California’s Butte County ignited the devastating blaze that destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people, almost all in one frantic November day.

The announcement came during a whirlwind of news at the State Capitol involving the troubled utility company.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday escalated his criticism of the utility, blasting it in a court filing for “mismanagement, misconduct and failed efforts to improve a woeful safety culture.”

Meanwhile, the utility’s new CEO Bill Johnson was at the Capitol, vowing during testimony at an Assembly committee to bring “a focus on fundamentals” back to a company teetering on a financial precipice.

Johnson said the Cal Fire findings were expected. “I have made the assumption when I got here that PG&E equipment caused the fire. It’s a disappointment that this happened.”

PG&E, which is now in bankruptcy, due in part to pending wildfire legal costs, acknowledged several months ago there were power line problems at the site of the fire ignition point, citing a faulty hook on a tower.

The Camp Fire was the worst wildfire in state history, destroying an estimated 90 percent of the hillside Butte County town of Paradise, leaving tens of thousands homeless. The fire also ravaged much of the nearby towns of Concow and Magalia.

In its announcement, Cal Fire said the fire started Nov. 8, 2019 near the community of Pulga. “After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, Cal Fire has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity located in the Pulga area.”

“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 identified a second ignition site, caused by “vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E.” That fire merged into the original fire, officials said.

PG&E issued a formal statement later in the day, thanking first responders to the fire, and saying “our hearts go out to those who have lost so much.”

State fire officials said they have forwarded their investigative report to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who has the authority to file a criminal case against the utility. PG&E already is under criminal probation for a massive gas explosion in the Bay Area city of San Bruno in 2010 that leveled 35 houses and killed 8 people.

Cal Fire Deputy Director Michael Mohler referred questions about details of the fire investigation to Ramsey, and declined to confirm whether the fire was caused by a defective C-hook on the transmission line, as earlier reported by PG&E.

Ramsey didn’t immediately return a message from The Bee.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said it is good to finally have an official determination, and said she hopes it will strengthen various efforts to get PG&E to pay victim compensation. Numerous residents of the Paradise area have filed civil actions against the utility.

“I don’t think it is a surprise for anyone,” Jones said. “I am hoping this will help in the negotiations with PG&E” on the lawsuits.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, called on PG&E to be a good corporate citizen. “Now that the official determination has been made, PG&E must do the responsible thing by stepping up to the plate to help our communities recover. My message to PG&E is: Don’t hide behind bankruptcy. Be part of the solution.”

The massive utility company, which provides gas and electricity to much of Northern California, filed for bankruptcy in January, two months after the Camp Fire burned 153,000 acres.

PG&E acknowledged in February that its power equipment is likely to blame for the Camp Fire and said its wildfire liabilities raise “substantial doubt” about the company’s future. The utility pointed to a damaged “C-hook” on a high-voltage transmission tower in a remote spot about ten miles northeast of Paradise as a likely culprit.

The utility company has since gone through an overhaul at the top. New CEO Johnson, formerly with the Tennessee Valley Authority, testified at the Capitol that he’s committed to making the company accountable to customers and victims.

“The first thing that I’m going to do is bring an intense focus back to the fundamentals of operating a utility system,” Johnson said. “Clear roles. Clear accountability. Clear standards of what good looks like. And I’ve already seen a number of places where we’re not even ‘pretty good.’

“We lag the industry in some important performance indicators. To me this is an exercise in returning to the mastery of the fundamentals of the business.”

He said the company will be “laser focused” on safety, but added, “I won’t expect you to believe that until you see the results.”

He said the company is going to inspect tens of thousands of miles of its lines as well as hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment. He estimated it would cost between $600 million and $900 million as part of a systemwide safety program that also includes trimming trees around its lines.

The utility, in a later statement, added that it is working on real-time monitoring devices, and proactively shutting down power based on extreme weather conditions.

The governor meanwhile urged the judge overseeing PG&E’s bankruptcy to reject the company’s request for a six-month extension to present its reorganization plan. Newsom’s office argues the company should instead have to submit its reorganization plans within 75 days.

PG&E’s extension request “reflects no sense of urgency in addressing the serious problems and issues confronting” the company, Newsom’s office wrote in a brief.

The Newsom administration also notes that the extension would span to the 2019 fire season, when the company should be working to ensure its equipment does not spark new fires.

“All should be mindful of PG&E’s history of over two decades of mismanagement, misconduct and failed efforts to improve a woeful safety culture,” Newsom’s office writes. “We should not forget that PG&E entered these Chapter 11 Cases as a convicted felon, with five different felony convictions for safety violations and one conviction for obstruction of justice.”

As bankruptcy proceedings for the utility move forward, Newsom is urging the Legislature to consider changing liability laws for utilities. California law currently holds utilities like PG&E financially liable for fires started by their equipment, regardless of whether they acted negligently. Advocates for fire victims have criticized that idea, arguing it would reduce utilities’ incentive to prevent their equipment from sparking fires.

The utility company, for its part, argued that asking for more time is common in bankruptcy cases and that its plan in part depends on what the Legislature and state regulators might do to change utility regulations over the next few months.

“PG&E is asking for additional time to increase our chances of formulating and negotiating a plan of reorganization that is feasible and agreeable to stakeholders,” PG&E spokesman Andy Castagnola said in a statement.

“PG&E remains committed to working together with our stakeholders to fairly and expeditiously resolve our liabilities resulting from the 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires, and to delivering safe and reliable service to our customers."