Cal Fire's Own Expert Unsure on Agency's Basis to Clear PG&E in Tubbs Fire

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Attorneys seeking to undermine Cal Fire’s conclusions and blame PG&E for the massive Tubbs Fire recently got a boost from an unusual source – the very electrical consultant Cal Fire relied on during its investigation that exonerated the utility in the worst of the North Bay wildfires.

Attorneys for victims of the October 2017 fire that left 22 people dead and destroyed whole neighborhoods in Santa Rosa contend Cal Fire got it wrong by excluding the utility as having sparked the fire.

Instead, Cal Fire’s final report blames an unpermitted low voltage electrical system on a private hilltop property owned by Ann Zink.

But just where the fire started on that property remains unclear because critical evidence was destroyed in the fire, Cal Fire’s report noted.

In a recent civil deposition, Cal Fire’s lead investigator in the case, James Martinez, stood by his conclusion that PG&E’s equipment was not to blame. That’s because, he said, 3-amp fuses on the PG&E power pole closest to the home did not blow, and that any problem would have caused them to activate.

But Jim Nolt, the independent expert Cal Fire relied on in its probe, testified in a deposition in October that it was indeed possible that an arcing event – akin to lightning and typically caused by vegetation contact – could have happened somewhere along the service drop without triggering the 3-amp fuses on the pole to blow.

“It can -- it's unlikely, but it can happen,” Nolt said under oath, according to one of the deposition transcripts in the case set to go to trial next month.

Steve Campora, one of the lawyers for Tubbs Fire victims, later asked Martinez about Nolt’s testimony, during a subsequent deposition.

“Do you now know, sir, after – after having looked at Mr. Nolt's testimony, that you could have had an event on the service drop that didn't blow the fuse -- the 3-amp fuse?” Campora asked.

“I still stand by the statement in – in the -- in my report,” Martinez replied.

“Even if it’s wrong?” Campora shot back.

After Cal Fire’s lawyer objected, Campora asked Martinez whether Nolt, as an electrical engineer, would have been the only expert Cal Fire could have relied on for making the conclusions in its final report.

“And if he says you could have an event on the service drop that didn't blow the 3-amp fuse, you would have to agree with that, right?”

“I'm going by the report he provided,” Martinez said, “and I don't know the context of what he was talking about, but as far as I understand, an event that could have caused a fire did not occur between the residence and the 3-amp fuses. Otherwise, it would have blown it.”

Martinez stressed that in “the context of this investigation, an event, if it would have occurred that could have caused a fire between the residence and the 3-amp fuses, the 3-amp fuses would have operated.”

In his deposition, Nolt was also asked about a surveillance video first broadcast on NBC Bay Area showing a flash near Pole 773, far down the hill from the Zink property. It is there where fuses blew at 9:20 p.m., right when power went down in the area, according experts. Wildfire victim attorneys argue that the flash was triggered when trees contacted PG&E power lines going up the hill to the Zink home – and that arcing sparked the fire.

Nolt said he had seen the video on his phone and had asked for a copy of that video from Martinez, but never received one.

Nolt acknowledged it was unlikely that the flash and the fuses being blown on the nearby pole 773 were a coincidence. But he said he could never figure out what caused the fuses to blow.

In a separate deposition, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jeremy Monroe – who served as a peer review adviser in the Tubbs investigation – said he wasn’t told about any flash being caught on the video and that no one at Cal Fire told him about any blown fuses either.

He said the information would be of value in reaching conclusions.

While Martinez couldn’t say for sure whether he informed peer reviewers about the blown fuses, he testified he did not share information he learned about the flash being depicted on video. He said he learned that after his report was final.

“In this case, it wasn't a peer review of the report and all data,” Martinez said, in explaining why not all information he had was being shared with peer experts. “It was a -- basically an origin and cause with the limited witness statement, so to make their -- to not introduce any sort of bias…”

Martinez added later: “I had to make a decision on what information to give them to not -- to give them some basic information and not influence them.”

Martinez was also asked about leaving behind flag markers around the origin he identified as possibly posing a similar bias. He said that was “a concern,” but stressed he did not want to remove the markers due to the risk that the removal itself could damage evidence.

In the end, the peer review team concluded the fire started outside the residence, although Martinez’s report did not exclude the home from the area of origin.

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