Brendan Weber

CalFire: Camp Fire, California's Deadliest, Was Caused by PG&E's Transmission Lines

PG&E had previously acknowledged that the transmission line lost power right before the fire and was later found to be damaged

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Wednesday that the deadliest wildfire in California's history was caused by PG&E's electrical transmission lines.

The Camp Fire, which destroyed 18,804 structures and resulted in 85 civilian fatalities in and around Paradise — a city of 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills — started in the Pulga area of Butte County, according to CalFire. Investigators found that strong winds, dry vegetation and warm temperatures caused the extreme spread of flames into Concow, Paradise and east Chico.

"The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E. This fire was consumed by the original fire which started earlier near Pulga," CalFire said in a news release.

PG&E did not immediately offer comment.

A second flashpoint was found, the agency said, near the intersection of Concow Road and Rim Road in Concow. That fire, Cal Fire says, was found to be caused by “vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E.”

That fire soon became part of the original fire, which ultimately claimed 86 lives.

CalFire has referred its findings to the Butte County District Attorney’s office. That’s something CalFire has done in cases where investigators suspect an underlying violation of state regulations or laws. CalFire did not say what violation is suspected in the Camp Fire, however.

Since the fire, NBC Bay Area has reported a grand jury has issued subpoenas for PG&E records related to its Caribou-Palermo transmission line.

The Caribou-Palermo circuit is the high voltage system that PG&E has previously said was tied to the fire. The company has said a worn hook on an aging transmission tower snapped. It is believed the line dangled onto the tower, triggering an explosion at the origin of the fire.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey confirmed Wednesday that CalFire determined a regulatory violation was suspected in the fire, but he declined to elaborate.

He said his office has three years to decide whether to seek criminal charges but stressed he believes a decision will be made within “weeks to months.”

Ramsey said there are no surprises in the CalFire report.

“There is no new information in terms of the scope and arc of the criminal investigation that starts shortly after the Camp Fire,” he said. “We know everything in the report.”

He said his office is considering various felonies, either against the company or individuals, as the investigation continues.

“We are looking at reckless arson and involuntary manslaughter, that involves a homicide with gross negligence, as a potential,” he said.

“We need to know what did PG&E know, and what should they have known,” Ramsey said.

In 2018, there were more than 7,571 wildfires that burned over 1.8 million acres within the state of California.

PG&E shares fell 1.6% in trading on Wednesday.

PG&E, the state's largest utility, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year after being overwhelmed by tens of billions of dollars in potential wildfire liabilities.

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