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Official report blames PG&E for Northern California wildfires

Officials from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) recently released a report tying Pacific Gas and Electric to 12 Northern California fires last fall. Those fires resulted in the deaths of 18 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Many of them were reportedly sparked when trees or tree parts fell onto PG&E lines, or when the lines were downed. An earlier investigation blamed PG&E for three wildfires, alleging the utility failed to trim trees near power lines.

According to the new report, Cal Fire's investigations have been referred to local authorities because violations of state law have been alleged. As we have discussed before on this blog, however, the California Constitution allows property owners to hold utilities liable for losses caused by their equipment, even when the utility was not negligent.

This "strict liability" rule holds the utilities responsible as if they had committed an inverse condemnation, or government taking of property, which must be fully compensated. Indeed, over 50 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E by fire victims in Northern California.

According to a Cal Fire press release about the report, the October 2017 "Fire Siege" was made up of over 170 fires. Some 245,000 acres were burned in Northern California. So far, investigators have completed their work on only 12 of those fires.

The findings are not favorable to PG&E. A number of the fires were blamed on trees or tree parts falling onto PG&E lines, which may indicate that the utility did not sufficiently trim back the forest surrounding its lines. Those fires included:

  • The Redwood Fire
  • The Cherokee Fire
  • The Norrbom Fire
  • The Adobe Fire
  • The Partrick Fire
  • The Nuns Fire
  • The Pocket Fire
  • The Atlas Fire (trees fell onto lines at both ignition points)

According to Cal Fire, other fires were caused either by downed power lines or by PG&E errors or equipment failures. These fires included:

  • The Sulphur Fire (failure of a PG&E power pole brought power lines and equipment into contact with the ground)
  • The 37 Fire in Sonoma County (electrical fire associated with PG&E distribution lines)
  • The Blue Fire (PG&E power line conductor fell to the ground)
  • The Pythian Fire (PG&E attempted to reenergize downed power line)

The Sulphur, Norrbom, Partrick, Pocket, Atlas, Blue, Pythian, and Adobe fires are up for review in county district attorney's offices for possible state law violations.

PG&E issued a statement reiterating its position that its programs meet California's high standards. "For example," the statement reads, "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."

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