A state lawmaker is urging both Cal Fire and state regulators to take another look at their findings in the massive Tubbs Fire based on new video evidence uncovered by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
State Sen. Jerry Hill says he is concerned that state regulators cleared the utility of wrongdoing months after PG&E told a federal judge about failing to heed regulations that it clear brush around a pole near the origin of the second most destructive wildfire in state history.
The questions come after the Investigative Unit obtained a surveillance video from Bennett Lane Winery, showing a flash near a PG&E power pole well before the first signs of fire appeared in a hill across from the vineyard.
The moment of that flash, according to PG&E’s records, two fuses blew on the pole, cutting power to nearby homes, including the unpermitted private electrical system spanning much of the property owned by Ann Zink.
Cal Fire’s report blames that system for starting the fire that leveled 5,000 structures and left 22 dead, but its report does not account for how the fire could have started at a system that had already lost power. It suggests the fire started before the power went out but has yet to identify how.
But Hill says the video alone should convince Cal Fire to reconsider blaming the then 91-year-old Zink for the disaster.
“This is certainly grounds to open that investigation for a more thorough look at it,” he said, “because there’s a private property owner now being held responsible for that fire. And if they’re not responsible then we need to find out who actually is.”
Hill says it may be time for the state Public Utilities Commission to take another look as well, based on the Investigative Unit’s review of PG&E documents about the pole where that flash likely occurred, No. 773.
In a report to U.S. District Judge William Alsup in December, PG&E acknowledged that “due to a mapping error, vegetation on the ground beneath the pole” that should have been cleared “was not.”
State law specifies that a 10-foot radius at the base of poles be kept clear of brush to prevent fires. That’s because they have so-called expulsion fuses, that expel hot gases and send molten metal to the ground when they activate.
“You have a nice ball of fire when they operate, when they separate,” said Dan Mulkey, a former PG&E electrical engineer turned private consultant. “They can’t be used in a fire area unless you also clear around the pole where they are every year…”
Until last week, the base of the pole was thick with dry grass. On Monday, the brush was gone and the ground bare around the base of the pole.
State regulators said in a statement that they had not been aware of what PG&E told Judge Alsup about the brush clearance error involving pole No. 773. Cal Fire, which did not identify the issue in its report, declined to comment on any Tubbs Fire related findings, citing pending litigation.
State regulators also did not lodge evidence disposal charges in the Tubbs Fire case, although they did accuse the utility of disposing of evidence in two other North Bay wildfires.
That decision not to take action in the Tubbs case came despite what a PG&E lawyer told Cal Fire in a letter in August of last year, acknowledging a worker had indeed “discarded” what had remained of two blown fuses from the pole days after the fire “in accordance with PG&E’s normal restoration practices.”
The action came despite repeated warnings issued soon after the North Bay fires that the company take care to preserve any potential evidence.
Cal Fire, which had sealed off the Zink property but did not secure the nearby pole on Bennett Lane, ended up seizing new fuses the company installed on the pole to restore service after the fire – not what remained of the old ones.
In a civil deposition last year, PG&E troubleman Robert Villagomez told wildfire lawyers he didn’t see much value in keeping what was left of those fuses on the pole.
“I throw them away … it’s kind of a standard practice,” he testified.
Sen. Hill said regulators should make sure the company is held accountable for any violations, especially destruction of evidence, whether or not they are specifically related to the fire itself.
“The PUC needs to look at that,” Hill said, “regardless of what conclusions that’ve come after that as to the cause of the fire. That’s unrelated to the violations of that pole and that fuse and that lack of ground clearing.”
While state regulators said they didn’t find any violations when they issued their report as of June, they will re-examine what has been learned to date and if they find more evidence, they “will determine the appropriate course of action to be taken.”
For its part, PG&E reiterated that Cal Fire “did not identify any violations of state law, public resources code, related to the cause of this fire.”