Camp Fire suit claims PG&E ‘jumper’ ca­ble, tower fail­ure caused blaze

The Sacramento Bee - - State - BY DALE KASLER [email protected]

For weeks a PG&E trans­mis­sion tower north­east of Par­adise has loomed as a pos­si­ble cul­prit in the Camp Fire, trig­ger­ing a slew of law­suits and of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Now a new law­suit by Camp Fire sur­vivors at­tempts to pin­point the cause in the great­est de­tail yet, fo­cus­ing on an unin­su­lated “jumper” ca­ble that lawyers say came into con­tact with the steel tower and sparked the dead­li­est blaze in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

The law­suit, filed Thurs­day on be­half of 34 sur­vivors of the Nov. 8 dis­as­ter, says an ex­ten­sion arm jut­ting from the tower was sup­posed to have kept the elec­tri­fied jumper ca­ble from mak­ing con­tact with the tower it­self. But some­how the ex­ten­sion failed and the ca­ble touched the tower, lead­ing to catas­tro­phe. The fire has killed 85 peo­ple and de­stroyed much of the town of Par­adise.

“Blaz­ing hot molten ma­te­ri­als dropped into the fine dead fu­els be­low the con­duc­tor ig­nit­ing the dev­as­tat­ing Camp Fire,” said the law­suit, filed in San Fran­cisco Su­pe­rior Court by Bay Area law firms Corey Luzaich de Ghetaldi & Rid­dle and Danko Mered­ith.

Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co., in a dis­clo­sure to the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion a day af­ter the fire de­stroyed most of Par­adise, said a 115-kilo­volt line ex­pe­ri­enced a prob­lem in the vicin­ity of where the Camp Fire was re­ported, about 15 min­utes be­fore the blaze started. The util­ity didn’t of­fer specifics about the prob­lem.

The re­port led to a steep de­cline in par­ent com­pany PG&E Corp.’s stock price amid spec­u­la­tion that the com­pany, al­ready fac­ing bil­lions in claims from last year’s wine coun­try fires, could be in deep fi­nan­cial dis­tress. The PUC has or­dered PG&E to make broad changes in its cor­po­rate cul­ture to im­prove safety pro­ce­dures.

Dario de Ghetaldi, a part­ner in the Corey Luzaich firm, said in an in­ter­view Fri­day that his firm’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors were al­lowed to in­spect the tower, lo­cated in a re­mote area called Pulga about ten miles north­east of Par­adise. They found that Cal Fire and PG&E crews had par­tially dis­as­sem­bled the tower, re­mov­ing sec­tions of the jumper ca­ble and the tower ex­ten­sion.

“They took that part of the struc­ture into cus­tody,” de Ghetaldi said.

It’s un­clear what caused the ca­ble to come into con­tact with the tower. NBC Bay Area, quot­ing uniden­ti­fied sources, said

a steel hook on the ex­ten­sion might have failed, al­low­ing the jumper line to come free and make con­tact with the tower.

PG&E had no im­me­di­ate com­ment on the law­suit. Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The agency hasn’t iden­ti­fied a cause of the fire yet.

The law­suit faults “PG&E’s fail­ure to prop­erly in­spect and main­tain the tower” and de Ghetaldi said the util­ity should have in­su­lated the jumper ca­ble. “PG&E does not use in­su­lated lines be­tween the trans­mis­sion tow­ers be­cause of ex­pense and added weight,” he said in the in­ter­view. “If they had used in­su­lated lines this damned fire would have never hap­pened.”

He added, how­ever, that the lack of in­su­la­tion “is the in­dus­try norm.”

The al­le­ga­tions about the Camp Fire fol­low years of crit­i­cism of PG&E’s over­sight of its trans­mis­sion lines and other equip­ment.

Frank Pitre, of the Cotch­ett Pitre & McCarthy law firm in Burlingame, said in an in­ter­view that sev­eral PG&E trans­mis­sion tow­ers, in the same gen­eral area as the sus­pected tower, fell over in 2012 for rea­sons that re­main un­clear. Pitre, whose firm is su­ing PG&E over the wine coun­try fires and is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Camp Fire, said the

2012 in­ci­dent is fur­ther ev­i­dence of prob­lems with its equip­ment.

“PG&E rec­og­nizes they have an ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture,” he said.

The tower that’s be­ing in­ves­ti­gated in the Camp fire “has been out there decades,” he added. “It is

100 years, 90 years? 80 years?”

Last year the util­ity was fined $8.3 mil­lion by the PUC for fail­ing to prop­erly main­tain a 12-kilo­volt elec­tri­cal line that was blamed for ig­nit­ing the Butte Fire, which killed two peo­ple and de­stroyed

921 homes and other build­ings in Amador County in 2015. The agency said the elec­tri­cal line made con­tact with a 44foot-tall pine tree — a tree that should have been iden­ti­fied as haz­ardous.

Sep­a­rately, PG&E faces bil­lions in claims for the wine coun­try fires, which killed 44 peo­ple in Oc­to­ber 2017. Cal Fire has cited PG&E equip­ment prob­lems for 16 of the wine coun­try fires; it has yet to as­sign a cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the dead­li­est of the 2017 fires.

PG&E has also come un­der scru­tiny over its use of de­vices known as “re­closers,” which au­to­mat­i­cally re-en­er­gize power lines af­ter ser­vice in­ter­rup­tions, en­abling power to be re­stored from a re­mote lo­ca­tion. PG&E told state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Ma­teo, that it shut off some of the re­closers in the vicin­ity of the wine coun­try fires, but left most of them op­er­at­ing. Re­closers re­port­edly con­trib­uted to the 2007 Witch Fire in San Diego.

It re­mains un­known if the de­vices played a role in the wine coun­try fires — or the Camp Fire. But ear­lier this year, PG&E pledged to ex­pand “our prac­tice of dis­abling line re­closers and cir­cuit break­ers in high fire-risk ar­eas dur­ing fire sea­son.”

The pledge was part of a wide-rang­ing ini­tia­tive PG&E be­gan this year to im­prove fire safety, in­clud­ing de­lib­er­ate black­outs when con­di­tions are dry and winds turn dan­ger­ous. The util­ity did shut power to 60,000 cus­tomers ear­lier this year as a pre­ven­tive mea­sure, but can­celed a se­cond planned shut­down across por­tions of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing Butte County, just be­fore the Camp Fire started.

Crit­ics have also ac­cused PG&E of skimp­ing on its tree-trim­ming pro­gram — a charge lev­eled in nu­mer­ous law­suits filed against the util­ity the past two years. And in 1997 PG&E was con­victed of 739 mis­de­meanor counts of crim­i­nal neg­li­gence for fail­ure to trim trees prop­erly, fol­low­ing the Trauner Fire in Ne­vada County.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

A PG&E truck makes its way past a hot spot on Pentz Road dur­ing the Camp Fire in Par­adise.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

Lou Don­nelly gets help from his son, Matthew, to move a safe from his de­stroyed house as res­i­dents of east side of Par­adise re­turn to their neigh­bor­hood Wed­nes­day.

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