CAL FIRE confirms — the Camp Fire that destroyed most of Paradise, CA was started by a PG&E powerline

firefighter battles flames Camp Fire
A firefighter battles flames at the Camp Fire. Photo by FirePhotoGirl used with permission.

It comes as no surprise, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has confirmed what was long thought, that equipment on a Pacific Gas and Electric power line started the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. PG&E has been saying for months that it was likely their power line started the fire but CAL FIRE’s investigation now makes it official. This could open the floodgates for numerous civil and possibly criminal cases.

CAL FIRE discovered two points of origin, both caused by the power line. One resulted from vegetation coming in contact with a conductor, but they were not specific about the second source. A few days after the fire started there was an unofficial report that a piece of hardware on a 100-year old high voltage transmission tower failed, causing the line to fall, but this has not been officially confirmed.

CAL Fire did not released 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 fire started early in the morning on November 8, 2018 near the small community of Pulga northeast of Paradise. It burned over 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, and resulted in 85 fatalities. It became the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the recorded history of California.

Very strong winds and low humidity that day spread the fire rapidly into the town making it impossible to safely fly air tankers and helicopters close to the ground. The wind would have also blown retardant or water far off any selected target.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

System developed to shut off electricity to broken power line before it hits the ground

It can be done in less than 1.37 seconds

Power Line Shutoff System
SDG&E’s has developed a system that can shut off the electricity to a broken power line before it hits the ground. SDG&E graphic.

Some of the wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes in California in the last two years were caused by broken power lines. A utility that supplies electricity to much of Southern California, San Diego Gas and Electric, has developed a system intended to cut off power to a falling power line before it hits the ground, therefore avoiding a possible ignition.

SDG&E’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

In SDG&E’s video below, they describe the system beginning at 1:40.

If this actually is effective in the real world, it would be a very important method of preventing some wildfires caused by power lines.

Investigators determine that a power line caused the Thomas Fire

The fire burned 281,893 acres near Santa Barbara, destroyed 1,063 structures, and caused the death of one civilian and one firefighter

Thomas Fire
Thomas Fire, Ventura, CA, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) has determined that an arcing power line caused the Thomas Fire that destroyed 1,063 structures and caused the death of a civilian and a firefighter.

Investigators found that strong winds on December 4, 2017 forced Southern California Edison power lines to come in contact with each other, resulting in molten metal falling to the ground which ignited vegetation. The common term for this is “line slap.”

Measured east to west the Thomas Fire spread for over 42 miles, stretching between Fillmore and Santa Barbara in Southern California.

map Thomas Fire
Map of the west side of the Thomas Fire. The red line was the perimeter on December 23, 2017. Click to enlarge.

CAL FIRE Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of the San Diego/San Diego County Fire Authority was overrun by fire and killed December 14, 2017 while battling the blaze. A 70-year-old woman died in a car accident while fleeing the fire on December 6, 2017.

At one point nearly 9,000 emergency personnel were working on the fire.

The investigative team was comprised of four agencies: CAL FIRE, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Judge to PG&E: Safety is not your number 1 thing

trim trees power line
Mohave Electric Coop photo.

On Wednesday, the day after Pacific Gas and Electric officially filed for bankruptcy protection, a federal judge berated the company for wildfires started by their electrical distribution equipment.

“To my mind, there’s a very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires,” Judge William Alsup said. “What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires.'” And later, “Safety is not your number one thing”.

PG&E has been on criminal probation for years following the 2010 gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. Judge Alsup is overseeing the company’s probation.

Investigators have attributed more than 1,500 fires to PG&E power lines and hardware between June 2014 and December 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription).

Below is an excerpt from KCRA:

[Alsup] proposed earlier this month as part of PG&E’s probation that it remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions and shut off power when fire is a risk regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit. Alsup said his goal was to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.

PG&E wrote in a court filing last week that the judge’s proposals would endanger lives, could cost $75 to $150 billion to implement, and require the hiring of 650,000 workers.

From the Merced Sun Star:

Alsup, however, was clearly frustrated by PG&E’s explanations. “I don’t buy that there isn’t enough people,” the judge said, adding that PG&E is moving too slowly and wasted billions paying dividends to shareholders instead of removing trees and improving its system.

What does California law require?

The California Public Resources Code section 4293e requires all vegetation to be removed that is within four to 10 feet of a power line, depending on the how many volts it is carrying. The Code also requires the removal of “dead trees, old decadent or rotten trees, trees weakened by decay or disease, and trees or portions thereof that are leaning toward the line which may contact the line from the side or may fall on the line.”

PG&E acknowledged this law and others in the November 2, 2017 edition of their “Currents” publication. The  original copy on the internet has been removed and we were unable to find it — except on the Wayback Machine Internet Archive that was captured on November 20, 2017.

November 2, 2017 edition of PG&E's "Currents"
November 2, 2017 edition of PG&E’s “Currents”. Screen capture from Wayback Machine on November 20, 2017.

Our Opinion

It seems odd, to say the least, that PG&E now seems surprised and outraged that a judge is suggesting that the company “remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions”, which is exactly what the law requires, and which was acknowledged by the company in their newsletter three weeks after their electrical system started a dozen fires in Northern California on October 8, 2017, according to CAL FIRE investigators. The agency is also looking into PG&E power line equipment failures that may have caused the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Over 40 people died in the Northern California fires, and 86 perished in the Camp Fire which also destroyed more than 14,000 homes.

Erin Brockovich concerned about PG&E’s bankruptcy plan after wildfires

The company could be facing more than $30 billion in potential damages after wildfires in 2017 and 2018

Camp Fire satellite photo 10:45 am Nov. 8, 2018. Zeke Lunder
Camp Fire, as it began to burn into Paradise, Calif. LANDSAT 8 image at 10:45 a.m. PT, Nov. 8, 2018. Processed by Zeke Lunder, Deer Creek Resources, Chico, Calif.

Erin Brockovich battled Pacific Gas and Electric over ground water contamination in the 1990s, an effort that led to the Julia Roberts film named after her — Erin Brockovich. Now she is concerned about PG&E’s announced plan to declare bankruptcy, which may limit the company’s liability in their role for possibly starting the Camp Fire last year and many others in 2017.

PG&E has said they can’t afford to pay the estimated $30 billion in potential damages from the fires. The Camp fire destroyed about 14,000 homes and killed at least 86 people. CAL FIRE is looking closely at hardware that may have failed on a 100-year old high-voltage tower, possibly igniting the fire. A second possible point of ignition near other PG&E equipment is also being examined.

CAL FIRE investigators determined that the company’s electrical distribution system caused at least 17 of the major fires in Northern California in 2017, destroying thousands of homes.

Ms. Brockovich appeared at a press conference in Sacramento Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from KWBE:

“We should all be beyond frustrated,” Brockovich said during the press conference. “Every one of us should be good and mad. And it is time for the state to get to work. They need to show us their true leadership in holding this company accountable and making these communities whole again.”

She also alleged that the utility company is solvent and that it’s simply shucking its responsibilities.

“How are we going to stand by and just hurl 40,000 citizens, who have been harmed — not to mention the state of California — into chaos? Because Pacific Gas and Electric once again doesn’t want to be held accountable or pay for the damages they have caused,” Brockovich said.

In a response, a spokesperson for the utility company told ABC News that the company still had “work to do” and said that it remained “focused on supporting [families impacted by the wildfires] through the recovery and rebuilding process.”

Facing liability over wildfires, PG&E to file for bankruptcy

The company may have $30 billion in potential liability costs related to their role in starting wildfires

PG&E service territory
Map showing the service area of Pacific Gas & Electric, and the land protected by CAL FIRE (State Responsibility Area).

Pacific Gas and Electric has announced that it will file for Chapter 11 protection before the end of the month as it faces $30 billion in potential liability costs related to their role in starting wildfires. The company already carries a heavy debt load of more than $18 billion.

A dozen of the fires that started in Northern California around October 8, 2017 have been blamed on PG&E’s electrical equipment, according to CAL FIRE investigators, who also are looking into power line equipment failures that may have caused the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Over 40 people died in the Northern California fires, and 86 perished in the Camp Fire which also destroyed more than 14,000 homes.

The bankruptcy process would put a halt to more than 750 civil suits brought by thousands of homeowners and insurance companies over the wildfires allegedly caused by PG&E’s equipment, some of it 100 years old. The suits would then be resolved in a bankruptcy proceeding.

PG&E supplies power and natural gas to approximately 5.2 million households in the northern three-fourths of California. The company also declared bankruptcy in 2001 which lasted until 2004.

State law requires the corporation to notify employees at least 15 days before any bankruptcy filing. Chief Executive Geisha Williams has stepped down after serving for less than two years, the company said on Sunday.

In a brief submitted to a federal court in December, the California Attorney General said PG&E could be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter, or lesser criminal charges if investigators determine that “reckless operation” of its power equipment caused any of the wildfires in which people were killed during the previous 15 months.