Cause: PG&E power lines may have sparked deadly blaze amid high winds

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Matthias Gafni mgafni@ba­yare­anews­

PAR­ADISE >> Downed PG&E power lines, amid high winds, may have sparked the deadly Camp fire that has de­stroyed the town of Par­adise and killed at least nine peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to hours of fire­fighter ra­dio trans­mis­sions re­viewed by Bay Area News Group.

At about 6:33 a.m. Thurs­day, fire­fight­ers were dis­patched to a veg­e­ta­tion fire “un­der the high ten­sion power lines” across the Feather River from Poe Dam, where Cal Fire of­fi­cials have pin­pointed the fire’s ori­gin, ac­cord­ing to the trans­mis­sions. The first fire­fight­ers ar­rived there at 6:43 a.m and noted the fire was be­ing but­tressed by 35 mph winds.

“We’ve got eyes on the veg­e­ta­tion fire. It’s go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult to ac­cess, Camp Creek Road is nearly in­ac­ces­si­ble,” one fire­fighter told dis­patch. “It is on the west side of the

river un­der­neath the trans­mis­sion lines.”

As fire­fight­ers rushed to Poe Dam early Thurs­day morn­ing, each truck ac­knowl­edged over the ra­dio, “Copy, power lines down,” as part of safety pro­to­col for fire­fight­ers.

The util­ity, which al­ready has been crit­i­cized and sued in a num­ber of other large and deadly fires across Cal­i­for­nia, had an­nounced two days ear­lier that it might shut down power to parts of Butte County amid fore­casts of high wind and low hu­mid­ity. But it never did.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean em­pha­sized the cause is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion but added that the probe would in­clude “elec­tri­cal equip­ment.”

PG&E dis­closed in a Fri­day fil­ing to the state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion that it had de­tected an out­age on a trans­mis­sion line in Butte County, oc­cur­ring about 15 min­utes be­fore the fire was first re­ported. It said a sub­se­quent aerial in­spec­tion de­tected dam­age to a trans­mis­sion tower on that same trans­mis­sion line a mile north­east of the town of Pulga “in the area of the Camp Fire.” That is the ap­prox­i­mate lo­ca­tion of Poe Dam.

But PG&E spokesman Ja­son King said no cause of the fire had been de­ter­mined.

“We can’t spec­u­late on the cause of the fire. There will be an in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said.

PG&E faces bil­lions in po­ten­tial li­a­bil­ity be­cause of the role of its power equip­ment in other de­struc­tive wild­fires, in­clud­ing those last year in Wine Coun­try. Stock traders sent PG&E’s share price plung­ing Fri­day amid word of the lat­est round of Cal­i­for­nia blazes.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, after the first ra­dio call, an im­me­di­ate, multi-alarm re­sponse was sent to the area along Pulga and Camp Creek roads, near the dam that is pop­u­lar with kayak­ers and one of PG&E’s 10 hy­dro­elec­tric sta­tions along the north fork of the river. Google satel­lite images show PG&E trans­mis­sion lines above Pulga and Camp Creek roads.

“The (re­port­ing party) is call­ing from Poe Dam look­ing across un­der the high ten­sion power lines. There’s a pos­si­ble power line hazard,” a dis­patcher alerted re­spond­ing crews, in­clud­ing six en­gines and a num­ber of per­son­nel.

Mean­while, at 6:34 a.m. and about 8 miles west, an­other fire crew was dis­patched to a re­port of a tree branch tak­ing down res­i­den­tial power lines in the neigh­bor­ing town of Ma­galia.

Dur­ing last year’s Sonoma and Napa county fires, within the first 90 min­utes of the fires’ ori­gin, Sonoma County dis­patch­ers sent fire crews to at least 10 lo­ca­tions for downed wires and prob­lems with the elec­tri­cal sys­tem amid high winds.

The first fire­fighter to reach the Poe Dam area Thurs­day morn­ing quickly rec­og­nized the se­ri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion and called for an ad­di­tional 15 en­gines, four bull­doz­ers, two wa­ter ten­ders, four strike teams and hand crews.

“This has got the po­ten­tial for a ma­jor in­ci­dent,” he told dis­patch, alert­ing them to evac­u­ate Pulga, the town im­me­di­ately south­west, and to find air sup­port.

About six min­utes later, an­other fire­fighter es­ti­mated the fire at about 10 acres with a “re­ally good wind on it,” warn­ing that once it left the “main­tained veg­e­ta­tion un­der the power lines” the fire would reach a crit­i­cal rate of spread when it hit the brush and tim­ber.

On Tues­day night, with a loom­ing fore­cast of high winds and low hu­mid­ity, PG&E first tweeted that power might be shut down to cer­tain North­ern Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties, in­clud­ing Butte County and about 26,500 cus­tomers in cities and towns in­clud­ing Berry Creek, Chico, For­est Ranch, Ma­galia, Oroville and Par­adise.

Over the next 48 hours, the util­ity tweeted out 17 dif­fer­ent warn­ings of an im­pend­ing Thurs­day morn­ing shut-off. It even tweeted out a warn­ing at 7:56 a.m. Thurs­day, more than an hour after the Camp fire was re­ported, that the shut­off was still an op­tion.

PG&E re­leased a state­ment Thurs­day af­ter­noon, al­most nine hours after the Camp fire first sparked, call­ing off the shut­down “as weather con­di­tions did not war­rant this safety mea­sure.”

“We want to thank our cus­tomers for their un­der­stand­ing and for their ac­tions in prepa­ra­tion of a pos­si­ble Pub­lic Safety Power Shut­off,” Pat Ho­gan, PG&E se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Elec­tric Op­er­a­tions, said in the state­ment. “We know how much our cus­tomers rely on elec­tric ser­vice, and we will only con­sider tem­po­rar­ily turn­ing off power in the in­ter­est of safety and as a last re­sort dur­ing ex­treme weather con­di­tions to re­duce the risk of wild­fire.”

On Fri­day, King de­clined to get into specifics about why PG&E called off the shut­down, say­ing only, “We chose not to im­ple­ment the pub­lic safety power shut off in any lo­ca­tion.”

In its warn­ings, PG&E had fore­cast sus­tained winds of 20 to 30 mph, with gusts of 40 to 50 mph fore­cast overnight Wed­nes­day into Thurs­day, last­ing un­til late af­ter­noon.

When im­ple­ment­ing a pub­lic safety power shut­off, the util­ity fac­tors in strong winds, very low hu­mid­ity, crit­i­cally dry veg­e­ta­tion and on-the-ground ob­ser­va­tions.

PG&E’s stock plunged Fri­day by al­most $8 a share, a more than 16 per­cent drop amid the fires blaz­ing across the state. The de­cline wiped out PG&E’s en­tire gains for the year and was the big­gest one-day de­cline for the stock since 2002.

PG&E could face sub­stan­tial li­a­bil­ity from the Camp fire if its equip­ment is deemed to be at fault, but its fi­nan­cial risk has been di­min­ished by a con­tro­ver­sial law passed ear­lier this year. That law al­lows the util­ity to pass the costs of fire dam­age onto ratepay­ers un­der some cir­cum­stances.

At­tor­ney Frank Pitre, who is co-coun­sel rep­re­sent­ing more than 600 clients su­ing PG&E over the North Bay fires, said any con­nec­tion to the util­ity would trou­ble him.

“I am just sick to my stom­ach that PG&E’s wires may be in­volved. It’s just too tragic for words,” he said. “And I’m an­gry as hell if it’s true it’s PG&E’s wires again for them to not cut off power when they have a sys­tem for that in place.”


Sacra­mento fire­fight­ers bat­tle the Camp Fire as it con­tin­ues to burn in Ma­galia in Butte County on Fri­day. The fast-mov­ing wild­fire has scorched 140square miles.


High volt­age tow­ers cling to the steep canyons around Pulga on Fri­day near the re­ported start­ing point of the Camp Fire that de­stroyed the town of Par­adise and killed at least nine peo­ple.

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