Suit cites PG&E equip­ment it claims started deadly blaze

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By J.D. Morris

This week, The Chron­i­cle presents an in­side ac­count of the fire tor­nado that hit Red­ding this sum­mer and the acts of brav­ery, des­per­a­tion and hero­ism that oc­curred in its path. “150 Min­utes of Hell” can be seen on­line at www.sfchron­tor­nado and will ap­pear in print Sun­day.

A group of Camp Fire sur­vivors claim in a new law­suit against Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. to have pinned down how the deadly fire started, blam­ing the ig­ni­tion of the blaze on a spe­cific part of one of the util­ity’s trans­mis­sion tow­ers in Butte County.

The suit filed Thurs­day in San Fran­cisco Su­pe­rior Court says the un­prece­dented fire be­gan last month east of Par­adise be­cause of a poorly main­tained “jumper” ex­ten­sion, which leads wires from one side of a trans­mis­sion tower to an­other.

As in­tense winds blew through the area Nov. 8, an unin­su­lated jumper ca­ble made con­tact with the PG&E tower in ques­tion, send­ing “blaz­ing hot molten ma­te­ri­als” into dry veg­e­ta­tion and spark­ing what be­came Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

At­tor­neys place blame di­rectly on “PG&E’s fail­ure to prop­erly in­spect and main­tain the tower,” ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, which was filed on be­half of 34 peo­ple who said they lost homes or prop­erty in the fire.

The law­suit does not say why the jumper made con­tact with the tower, but NBC Bay Area re­ported that au­thor­i­ties are look­ing at a steel

hook sup­port­ing the ex­ten­sion, cit­ing sources fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“PG&E’s en­tire sys­tem is old and de­crepit, and in­stead of in­spect­ing and main­tain­ing it in a pru­dent fash­ion, they sim­ply let it run un­til it fails and then fix it,” said Mike Danko, one of the at­tor­neys in­volved in the suit. “Most of the time, you get away with that . ... But you don’t get away with it in the sit­u­a­tion that we have with the drought and the dry con­di­tions.”

PG&E did not com­ment on the claims in the suit, in­stead

echo­ing its pre­vi­ous com­ments that the safety of the cus­tomers and com­mu­ni­ties it serves are its “high­est pri­or­ity.”

“We are aware of law­suits re­gard­ing the Camp Fire,” spokes­woman Mayra Tostado said in an email. “Right now, our fo­cus is on as­sess­ing in­fra­struc­ture, safely restor­ing power where pos­si­ble, and help­ing our cus­tomers re­cover and re­build.”

Tostado also stressed that the Camp Fire’s cause is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But spec­u­la­tion has cen­tered

around PG&E since the early days of the fire, af­ter the util­ity told reg­u­la­tors its high-volt­age Cari­bou-Palermo trans­mis­sion line mal­func­tioned shortly be­fore the first flames were re­ported in the area where the blaze re­port­edly be­gan.

Thurs­day’s law­suit in­cludes pic­tures of the trans­mis­sion line run­ning through rugged, forested ter­rain. Five tow­ers on the line near the Camp Fire ori­gin point col­lapsed be­cause of a win­ter storm in 2012, the law­suit notes. The tow­ers were re­placed with tem­po­rary wooden poles in 2013, and steel tow­ers were not in­stalled un­til 2016, the suit says.

Fire of­fi­cials al­lowed “representatives of af­fected par­ties” to ac­cess the Camp Fire ori­gin site Nov. 18, when “pieces of in­su­la­tors and other de­bris still lit­tered the ground” un­der the tower in ques­tion, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

Au­thor­i­ties had re­moved failed wire sec­tions and the jumper ex­ten­sion, the law­suit says. A spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of For-

Cour­tesy Corey, Luzaich, De Ghetaldi & Rid­dle LLP

A photo in­cluded in a law­suit against PG&E uses ar­rows to show the sec­tions of a trans­mis­sion tower that al­legedly caused last month’s mas­sive blaze in Butte County.

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