PARADISE (CBS13/AP) – Cal Fire investigators have made their official determination of what caused the destructive Camp Fire in Butte County.
According to a release from Cal Fire on Wednesday, their investigation determined that “electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area” are responsible for starting the wildfire.
Coupled with tinder-dry vegetation, strong winds, low humidity, and warm weather, the Camp Fire spread explosively.
A second ignition source was also discovered by investigators. This source, near Concow and Rim roads, was also electrical lines owned and operated by PG&E.
The fire wiped out nearly 15,000 homes and killed 85 people. Many of those killed were elderly or disabled. The oldest was 99.
The disclosure came on the same day the utility’s new chief executive was testifying before a legislative committee in Sacramento. Bill 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.”
Cal Fire did not release its full investigative report, saying it had been forwarded to the Butte County district attorney’s office, which is considering filing criminal charges against the utility.
The utility, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, said in February it was “probable” that one of its transmission lines sparked the blaze. PG&E has estimated its total liability from the Paradise fire and 2017 wildfires could top $30 billion.
The fire spread rapidly, burning into the communities of Concow and Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico. Authorities said it was like no fire they had seen before. Strong wind gusts blew hot embers a mile or more, creating multiple fires.
The utility previously acknowledged that the Caribou-Palermo transmission line lost power right before the fire and was later found to be damaged.
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said Wednesday she was not surprised to hear Pacific Gas & Electric power lines sparked the blaze that decimated her town and she hopes the findings help the city’s legal case against the utility.
“It’s nice to have a definite answer,” Jones said.
Paradise sued PG&E in January seeking damages for the loss of infrastructure, land, property, trees, public and natural resources, and lost taxpayer resources.
The suit alleges the blaze started when electrical infrastructure owned, operated and maintained by PG&E failed, causing a spark that ignited the blaze.
The suit also alleges that PG&E had planned to de-energize power lines as a precaution against starting a fire but canceled those plans despite windy conditions.
PG&E’s bankruptcy reorganization plan is due by the end of May, but it has requested an extension until November.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Wednesday filing that PG&E shouldn’t get an extra six months to reorganize. He said the utility’s request continues to show it lacks an urgent focus on improving safety.
Newsom and lawmakers are working on proposals related to utility liability for wildfires that could affect the bankruptcy.
PG&E released the following statement Wednesday evening:
“Our hearts go out to those who have lost so much, and we remain focused on supporting them through the recovery and rebuilding process. We also want to thank the brave first responders who worked tirelessly to save lives, contain the Camp Fire and protect citizens and communities.
While we have not been able to review CAL FIRE’s report, its determination that PG&E transmission lines near the Pulga area ignited the Camp Fire on the morning of November 8, 2018, is consistent with the company’s previous statements. We have not been able to form a conclusion as to whether a second fire ignited as a result of vegetation contact with PG&E electrical distribution lines, as CAL FIRE also determined. PG&E is fully cooperating with all ongoing investigations concerning the Camp Fire.
We remain committed to working together with state agencies and local communities to make our customers and California safer. We are actively working toward this commitment through our comprehensive Community Wildfire Safety Program, which includes:
- Real-time monitoring and intelligence
- Enhanced vegetation management practices
- Re-inspections of our critical electric infrastructure in high fire-threat areas
- Building a more resilient electric system
- Proactively shutting down power based on extreme conditions”