CAL FIRE’s Butte Fire investigation blames power company for poor line maintenance

CAL FIRE is seeking $90 million in restitution from Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Map Butte Fire
CAL FIRE’s map of the Butte Fire dated September 12, 2016

An investigation of last September’s 70,868-acre Butte Fire by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that poor maintenance of a power line led to a tree contacting the line, causing the blaze. The fire destroyed a total of 921 structures, including; 549 homes, 368 outbuildings, and 4 commercial properties. Only five other fires in California have destroyed more structures.

Two residents were killed in the fire.

In addition to the $90 million that CAL FIRE is seeking from PG&E, 17 law firms are representing 1,800 people who expect to be reimbursed for damages.

And that is not all of the lawsuits. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

…Calaveras County supervisors say they will seek “hundreds of millions in compensation” from PG&E for the fire, estimated to have caused more than $1 billion in damage in that county.

The county expects to file a civil lawsuit in Superior Court, seeking to recover the county’s costs of responding to the fire, cleanup efforts, and losses of public property, county officials said.

“We are shocked and dismayed by the extent of PG&E’s negligence and will actively seek justice for Calaveras County and its citizens,” said Cliff Edson, chair of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.

The county will also ask the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E’s role in the fire, much like the agency did following the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, said county counsel Megan Stedtfeld. The San Bruno blast killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood, leading the commission to order the utility to make $1.5 billion in payments to the state and customers and for safety improvements…

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Butte Fire.

Incendiary devices found on Massachusetts power line

One of the devices is believed to have started a vegetation fire.

Unusual incendiary devices were found hanging from a power line in Massachusetts on Thursday. Firefighters reported the objects after they responded to the fire in Tyngsborough.

The photos below are screen grabs from an article at WMUR.com.

Powerline incendiary device Powerline incendiary device

Below is an excerpt from WMUR.com:

…Police said they found cylindrical metal objects on high power lines — that someone deliberately placed there.

“It would take a considerable effort to get up as high as they did in this instance,” said Howe.

Investigators said the devices looked like pipe bombs but were not explosive. They said it appears they were designed to start a fire and had to be manually activated.

“These devices were homemade,” FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven said. “Those devices are going to now be moved to the FBI lab for analysis to identify the precursor chemicals, as well as the other parts of the device.”

Authorities haven’t said how many devices were found or how they were placed on the power lines.

“I can’t think of any other reason why somebody would want to do that, other than a sinister reason,” said Kowenhoven.

Agents said the fact that the objects were designed to catch fire — not explode — could help them pin down those responsible…

Other electricity transmission facilities in Nogales, Arizona and California’s Silicon Valley were targets of sabotage in 2013 and 2014.

Jury finds power companies mostly liable for Las Conchas Fire

Start of the Las Conchas fire
The Las Conchas fire, taken at 1:44 p.m. June 26, 2011, approximately 45 minutes after it started. Photo: Michael Grady

A jury found two power companies were mostly liable for starting the 2011 Las Conchas Fire northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico that burned 63 structures and 156,000 acres.

Two companies and the U.S. Forest Service share the responsibility for the fire that began when an aspen tree fell into a power line.

Below is an excerpt from an AP article:

Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative operated and maintained the power lines. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. provides the cooperative with electricity.

Jurors in Sandoval County District Court found the cooperative was 75 percent negligent for the wildfire, Tri-State 20 percent and the U.S. Forest Service 5 percent.

The amount of monetary damages will be determined at a later trial.

San Diego power company wants customers to pay 90% of wildfire costs

San Diego Gas and Electric wants to raise the rates their customers pay in order to cover the costs the utility incurred after the failure of their power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire which started near Santa Ysabel burned 197,990 acres.

SDG&E still owes $421 million resulting from legal settlements that were not covered by their insurance. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that on Friday the company asked for permission to have their customers pay 90 percent, or $379 million, of the remaining costs from the fires. The stockholders would pay $42 million.

In the years since the 2007 fires caused by SDG&E’s powerlines, the company has replaced a small percentage of wooden poles with steel poles, stepped up tree trimming programs near power lines, installed over 100 weather monitoring stations, staged private firefighters in areas with extreme fire danger, made a Type 1 helicopter available to firefighters for two years, and initiated a program to proactively shut off power to areas if they feel wind and weather conditions could cause their lines to fail and ignite fires.

The program of turning off power to prevent fires, has been controversial.

From the Times of San Diego in 2014:

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a fierce critic of SDG&E who represents East County communities, asked the utility to shut off electricity only as a last resort.

“I’m deeply concerned about any shutoffs because they pose risks to property and life in an emergency, especially in areas where firefighters need access to well water,” Jacob said. “I urge the utility to cut power only as a last resort and only if there’s an actual system failure that could ignite a wildfire.”

Wildfire briefing, December 4, 2014

Fires in U.S. and Australia determined to be caused by power lines

Map of Pfeiffer Fire
Map of Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

Two fires, in Western Australia and California, have recently been determined to be caused by electrical power lines.

The Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California started on December 16, 2013 and burned 34 homes and 917 acres in the coastal community 23 miles south of Monterey. The U.S. Forest Service reported on Wednesday:

The cause of the fire was determined to be high resistance heating of the Pfeiffer Ridge Mutual Water Company electrical control wires immediately adjacent to a steel water pipe line. The high resistance heating of the electrical control wires created a competent ignition source for this fire. The first fuel ignited was accumulated dried leaves and redwood needles.

The other fire was in Western Australia. Below is an excerpt from an article in Western Australia Today:

A rotted power pole infested with termites has been blamed for the Parkerville bushfire which destroyed more than 40 homes this year. But EnergySafety director Ken Bowron said the organisation would not take action against Western Power or the landowner.

The EnergySafety report into the cause of the fire on January 12 was released on Thursday and found the bushfire originated from a private pole at 180 Granite Road, Parkerville.

“There was no evidence to suggest the work performed by Western Power to replace the surface aerial seven months before the incident, or the work to replace the adjacent pole two day before the bushfires, causes the PA pole to fail,” Mr Bowron said.

“Based on the available evidence and legal advice, EnergySafety will not be taking any legal action against any party. The clear finding of the report is that the pole failed because it was rotten and had been infested by termites.

Hearing in Prescott on Granite Mountain Hotshots’ retroactive retirement benefits

From the Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona:

Now nearly a year and a half after 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the matter of retroactive retirement benefits continues to play out at Prescott City Hall.

With its earlier decision granting retirement benefits to the family of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft still under appeal, the local fire retirement board will take on two new retirement cases today.

During a 9 a.m. Thursday hearing at Prescott City Hall, the Prescott Board of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board will turn to the retirement claims by the families of Sean Misner and William Warneke, and whether the scope of the actual hearings on the claims should be limited…

Tree ring researcher at the University of Arizona honored

Thomas Swetnam
Thomas W. Swetnam with tree-ring specimens in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. (Photo courtesy of Michaela Kane/Arizona Daily Wildcat)

Thomas W. Swetnam, Regents’ Professor of dendrochronology and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

As part of the Section on Geology and Geography, Swetnam was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his investigations of tree rings as a record of past changes in climate, allowing scientists to predict future forest-fire frequencies in the Southwest.

Mr. Swetnam specializes in analyzing climate changes through history and prehistory, dangerous insect outbreaks and forest fires. In recent years, enormous blazes, some 10 times greater than those that firefighters have been accustomed to seeing in California and Arizona, have forced scholars to attempt to understand this phenomenon. The conclusions from Swetnam’s studies of these so-called megafires and their alarming size, duration and frequency have made the scientific community, governments throughout the world and media to pay close attention. Swetnam has appeared on programs such as PBS’ “NewsHour” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Norway: rare winter brush fire burns numerous structures

Norway fire
Photo by Ole Martin Dahle.

(Updated at 10:23 MST, January 30, 2014)

IR image Frøya Fire
Screen shot image from F-16 infrared video of firefighters at a fire near Frøya, Norway. In the video you can see firefighters dragging hoses, and appear to have to retreat as they are subjected to a shower of burning embers, which show up as white in the video.

Wildfire Today reader Bjørn Ivar Haugdal reports that the 3,000-acre fire in Norway we told you about earlier did not destroy as many structures as previously thought, and the number now stands at 55.

A new fire in Norway near Frøya has burned about 2,000 acres. Lighter winds have made it possible for civilian (Eurocopter AS350) and military (Bell 412SP) helicopters to assist firefighters. Water sources in lakes have to be opened with axes and chain saws, and water sprayed on vegetation quickly freezes in the -2C (28F) weather. There are reports that the fire started when children who were ice skating were playing with a lighter in the dry grass.

An F-16 fighter has been used as an aerial observation platform, streaming live video down to big screens at a command center on the ground. In a recording of the infrared video, at the 40-second mark you can see firefighters dragging hoses away from the head of the fire while they are being showered with hot embers, which show up as white in the video.

Below is a rough Google translation of a description of how military assets assisted firefighters:

Wednesday afternoon, two fire engines with eight soldiers from fire, rescue and room service (BRP) at Orland Main Air Base sent to the fire-ravaged Freya to participate in fire fighting. They were joined by a separate fire pump and a sekshjuling (ATV).

Defence Logistics Organisation sent a tank of fuel which ensures that the helicopters can easily access the fuel to get the most effective fighters. Four Bell 412 helicopters from Bardufoss and Rygge was sent to the fire area to assist in extinguishing efforts.

An air coordination element of defense contributes to coordinate air traffic in the area so the helicopter quenching capacity was utilized in the best possible way.

Coast guard vessels KV Bergen and KV Njord took part in extinguishing the work after the engagement in Flatanger was completed.

National Guard participates with 30 soldiers from the HV-12. In addition to Hitra and HV area are several nearby HV areas alerted and are ready to provide support if the need arises.

An F-16 fighters from Orland Main Air Station filmed fire and sent this live on big screens at the police control so the police and fire department received an overview of how the fire progressed.

A video clip taken from fighter plane Wednesday night shows how firefighters use fire pumps out on the ice in Langvatnet by Måsheia and smoke, sparks and burning objects flying over them.

The video below was shot from a drone over the earlier fire at Laerdalsoyri Village.

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(Updated at 12:33 p.m. MST, January 28, 2014)

Wildfire Today reader Bjørn Ivar has given us some updated information, saying about 90 structures have burned. Strong winds are still making it impossible to use helicopters, but Civil Defense personnel are using chain saws to cut holes in the ice on lakes so that the freshwater sources can be used for dip sites for the helicopters with water buckets. Some degree of containment has been reached, Mr. Ivar said, and the fires are still within the peninsula.

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(Originally published at 9:54 a.m. MST, January 28, 2014)

A rare January brush fire has burned scores of structures in the Norway villages of Hasvag and Smavaeret. Police believe the fire started Monday when strong winds blew two powerlines together.

The reports on the number of homes and other structures that have burned vary greatly. There could be as many as 95 that are damaged or destroyed.

Norway fire. Photo by Crews RS Harlald V.
Photo by Crews RS Harlald V.

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