PG&E: Some­one else’s wire could be cause of deadly fire

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST -

SAN FRAN­CISCO — The dead­li­est of last month’s wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try might have been started by elec­tri­cal equip­ment not owned or in­stalled by Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co., the util­ity said in a court fil­ing.

PG&E said in a le­gal fil­ing Thurs­day that a pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion sug­gests that a pri­vate power line may have started the blaze that killed 21 peo­ple and de­stroyed more than 4,400 homes in Sonoma County.

An­other 22 peo­ple were killed and at least 4,500 more struc­tures were de­stroyed in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires that be­gan Oct. 8.

Al­though the cause of the fire that dec­i­mated a Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood has not been de­ter­mined, “pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tions sug­gest that this fire might have been caused by elec­tri­cal equip­ment that was owned, in­stalled and main­tained by a third party,” PG&E at­tor­neys wrote in the fil­ing with the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil of Cal­i­for­nia, the pol­i­cy­mak­ing body of Cal­i­for­nia courts.

PG&E did not name the third party but ref­er­enced a lo­ca­tion in neigh­bor­ing Napa County where CalFire in­ves­ti­ga­tors have ze­roed in as they try to de­ter­mine the cause of the blaze.

Lynn Tol­ma­choff, a spokes­woman for the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, said she couldn’t com­ment on the fil­ing be­cause of the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “but we’ll take any­thing that PG&E sub­mits to us as part of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The fil­ing comes in re­sponse to 15 wild­fire-re­lated law­suits against PG&E. It gives no supporting ev­i­dence other than re­fer­ring to an elec­tric in­ci­dent re­port that the util­ity submitted to state reg­u­la­tors Nov. 2 in which it doc­u­mented 10 cases in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties of top­pled trees, downed lines and other dam­aged equip­ment. The re­port does not say whether those in­ci­dents might have caused or con­trib­uted to the fires.

In that re­port, the util­ity noted CalFire in­ves­ti­ga­tors took pos­ses­sion of equip­ment at a dam­aged home near Cal­is­toga, in­clud­ing a “sec­ondary ser­vice line that had de­tached from the fire-dam­aged home.”

“Cal Fire also took pos­ses­sion of mul­ti­ple sec­tions of cus­tomer-owned over­head con­duc­tor that served mul­ti­ple pieces of cus­tomer-owned equip­ment on the prop­erty,” PG&E said.

Ear­lier this year, the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion fined PG&E $8.3 mil­lion for fail­ing to main­tain a power line that sparked a mas­sive blaze in 2015 in Amador County that de­stroyed 549 homes and killed two peo­ple. A state fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion found the util­ity and its con­trac­tors failed to main­tain a gray pine tree that slumped into a power line, ig­nit­ing the fire.

On Wed­nes­day, the com­mis­sion pro­posed a new set of tougher safety rules for power lines, phone lines and util­ity poles in parts of the state prone to fires.

Ac­cord­ing to the pro­posed rules, tree branches would have to be kept far­ther from power lines, newly in­stalled lines would have to be spaced far­ther apart from each other, and util­ity com­pa­nies would have to fix many safety prob­lems in ar­eas of high fire risk be­fore mak­ing re­pairs in lower-risk zones. Those re­pairs would have to fol­low a set timetable, tak­ing no longer than six months in ex­treme fire-risk zones.

The com­mis­sion could vote on the new rules as early as Dec. 14.

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