East County News Service
June 8, 2018 (Sacramento) -- After extensive and thorough investigations, CAL FIRE investigators have determined that 12 Northern California wildfires in the October 2017 Fire Siege were caused by electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles. Cal Fire has referred cases in eight fires to local District Attorneys to consider criminal prosecutions.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company, in response, claims its installations meet state standards; the utility also announced plans for proactive power shut-offs similar to those that SDG&E has done in San Diego. PG&E is also pushing to eliminate California’s inverse condemnation laws to reduce utility liability for catastrophic losses in wildfires.
The October 2017 Fire Siege involved more than 170 fires and burned at least 245,000 acres in Northern California. About 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia helped battle the blazes.
CAL FIRE investigators were dispatched to the fires last year and immediately began working to determine their origin and cause. CAL FIRE investigators continue to investigate the remaining 2017 fires, both in October and December, and will release additional reports as they are completed. The cause of four Northern California fires were released on May 25.
Below is a summary of the findings from the 12 completed investigations, according to a press release issued by Cal Fire:
The Redwood Fire, in Mendocino County, started the evening of Oct. 8 and burned a total of 36,523 acres, destroying 543 structures. There were nine civilian fatalities and no injuries to firefighters. CAL FIRE has determined the fire started in two locations and was caused by tree or parts of trees falling onto PG&E power lines.
The Sulphur Fire, in Lake County, started the evening of Oct. 8 and burned a total of 2,207 acres, destroying 162 structures. There were no injuries. CAL FIRE investigators determined the fire was caused by the failure of a PG&E owned power pole, resulting in the power lines and equipment coming in contact with the ground.
The Cherokee Fire, in Butte County, started the evening of Oct. 8 and burned a total of 8,417 acres, destroying 6 structures. There were no injuries. CAL FIRE investigators have determined the cause of the fire was a result of tree limbs coming into contact with PG&E power lines.
The 37 Fire, in Sonoma County, started the evening of Oct. 9 and burned a total of 1,660 acres, destroying 3 structures. There were no injuries. CAL FIRE investigators have determined the cause of the fire was electrical and was associated with the PG&E distribution lines in the area.
The Blue Fire, in Humboldt County, started the afternoon of Oct. 8 and burned a total of 20 acres. There were no injuries. CAL FIRE investigators have determined a PG&E power line conductor separated from a connector, causing the conductor to fall to the ground, starting the fire.
The Norrbom, Adobe, Partrick, Pythian and Nuns fires were part of a series of fires that merged in Sonoma and Napa counties. These fires started in the late-night hours of Oct. 8 and burned a combined total of 56,556 acres, destroying 1,355 structures. There were three civilian fatalities.
CAL FIRE investigators determined the Norrbom Fire was caused by a tree falling and coming in contact with PG&E power lines.
CAL FIRE investigators determined the Adobe Fire was caused by a eucalyptus tree falling into a PG&E powerline.
CAL FIRE investigators determined the Pythian Fire was caused by a downed powerline after PG&E attempted to re-energize the line.
CAL FIRE investigators determined the Nuns Fire was caused by a broken top of a tree coming in contact with a power line.
The Pocket Fire, in Sonoma County, started the early morning hours of Oct. 9 and burned a total of 17,357 acres, destroying 6 structures. There were no injuries. CAL FIRE has determined the fire was caused by the top of an oak tree breaking and coming into contact with PG&E power lines.
The Atlas Fire, in Napa County, started the evening of Oct. 8 and burned a total of 51,624 acres, destroying 783 structures. There were six civilian fatalities. CAL FIRE investigators determined the fire started in two locations. At one location, it was determined a large limb broke from a tree and came into contact with a PG&E power line. At the second location, investigators determined a tree fell into the same line.
CAL FIRE’s investigations have been referred to the appropriate county District Attorney’s offices for review in eight of the 12 fires – Sulphur, Blue, Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe, Pocket and Atlas – due to evidence of alleged violations of state law.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has issued a statement in response to Cal Fire’s press release. The utility states in its press release:
The safety of our customers, their families and the communities we serve is our most important job. The loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is simply heartbreaking, and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild.
Programs Overall Met State's High Standards
We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the CAL FIRE reports to understand the agency's perspectives.
Based on the information we have so far, we continue to believe our overall programs met our state's high standards.
For example, PG&E meets or exceeds regulatory requirements for pole integrity management, using a comprehensive database to manage multiple patrol and inspection schedules of our more than two million poles.
Similarly, under PG&E's industry-leading Vegetation Management Program, we inspect and monitor every PG&E overhead electric transmission and distribution line each year, with some locations patrolled multiple times. We also prune or remove approximately 1.4 million trees annually.
Following Governor Brown's January 2014 Drought State of Emergency Proclamation and the California Public Utilities Commission's Resolution ESRB-4, PG&E added enhanced measures to address areas particularly affected by drought and bark beetles including increased foot and aerial patrols along power lines in high fire-risk areas, removal of hundreds of thousands of dead or dying trees, and daily aerial fire detection patrols during high fire season to improve fire spotting and speed of fire response.
'New Normal' Requires New Solutions
With that said, years of drought, extreme heat and 129 million dead trees have created a "new normal" for our state that requires comprehensive new solutions.
Extreme weather is increasing the number of large wildfires and the length of the wildfire season in California. According to CAL FIRE, in 2017 alone, CAL FIRE confronted 7,117 wildfires, compared to an average of 4,835 during the preceding five years. Five of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state's history burned between October and December 2017.
In the case of these Northern California wildfires, we saw an unprecedented confluence of weather-related conditions, including: years of drought resulting in millions of dead trees, a record-setting wet winter that spurred the growth of vegetation that then became abundant fuel after record-setting heat during the summer months, very low humidity and very high winds.
To address the growing threats posed by wildfires and extreme weather, and in light of the wildfires throughout our state last year, PG&E has launched the Community Wildfire Safety Program to help keep our customers and communities safe. Among the key components of the new program are:
- Wildfire Safety Operations Center: A state of the art operations center that will monitor extreme weather and fire threats in real time and in coordination with our safety partners.
- Weather Stations Network: A network of weather stations throughout high fire-risk areas to better monitor growing extreme weather conditions and predict where wildfires may occur.
- Fire Defense Zones: Augmenting our already rigorous vegetation management program to create new fire defense zones near power lines in high fire threat areas.
- Public Safety Power Shutoff: As a last resort, a program to proactively turn off electric power for safety when extreme fire danger conditions occur, while helping customers prepare and providing early warning notification, when and where possible.
We Must Work Together to Address This Challenge
The state, first responders and California's utilities are all in agreement that we must work together to prevent and respond to wildfires and enhance infrastructure resiliency.
This includes solutions that go beyond utility practices such as improvements in forestry management and in building codes. In addition, we must address the availability and affordability of insurance coverage, and we believe it is imperative to reform California's unsustainable policies regarding wildfire liability.
California is one of the only states in the country where the courts have applied inverse condemnation liability to events associated with investor-owned utility equipment. This means PG&E could be liable for property damages and attorneys' fees even if we followed established inspection and safety rules.
Liability regardless of negligence undermines the financial health of the state's utilities, discourages investment in California and has the potential to materially impact the ability of utilities to access the capital markets to fund utility operations and California's bold clean energy vision.
Reforming inverse condemnation would not absolve utilities from responsibility. Anyone harmed by these tragic wildfires has the ability to pursue a negligence claim in court. Furthermore, the CPUC, which regulates utilities, has the authority to investigate and evaluate a company's conduct and performance and deny the recovery of costs if such conduct did not meet the state's high standards.
We are committed to advocating with legislative leaders and policymakers across the state on comprehensive legislative solutions for all Californians, as we collectively seek to meet the challenge of climate change, and position the California economy for success.