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Utility equipment sparked massive California wildfire, investigators say

workers rebuilding power lines in California.

Enlarge / Workers make repairs to utility lines in a neighborhood that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019, in Paradise, Calif. Three months after the deadly and destructive Camp Fire, the community is beginning the rebuilding process.

California Fire officials have determined that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), one of the state’s largest utilities, was responsible for the deadliest fire in a century.

The Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burnt down nearly 15,000 homes, was sparked by PG&E power lines, according to a report that Cal Fire officials discussed with the press. The report was not widely released, but it was forwarded to the Butte County district attorney’s office.

The district attorney may bring criminal charges against the utility, and Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler told reporters that, “Investigators determined there were violations of law.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, charges could include “recklessly causing a fire or manslaughter.”

The report allegedly claims that PG&E power lines came into contact with vegetation in two spots in early November, sparking two separate fires outside of Paradise, Calif. “The second fire was quickly consumed by the initial fire,” the Associated Press notes.

PG&E is currently in the middle of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, triggered by the immense penalties it owes related to numerous wildfires sparked by its equipment. The results of the Camp Fire investigation weren’t a total surprise for PG&E: in February, the utility told investors that “the company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire.” PG&E has said that it expects liability from wildfires ignited in 2017 and 2018 to exceed $30 billion.

In earlier reports, PG&E disclosed that the the 115 kilovolt (kV) Caribou-Palermo transmission line, which crosses steep and difficult-to-access terrain in Northern California, went down about 15 minutes before a PG&E employee noticed a fire near one of the line’s towers. PG&E was expected to make several upgrades to the line, but they were allegedly put off for years before the fire started.

The Associated Press noted that investigators found PG&E responsible for causing 18 wildfires in 2017. Twelve of those cases were referred “for possible criminal prosecution.”

As California enters another wildfire season, PG&E has said it will actively shut off power to residents if winds become dangerous. “PG&E says it could knock out power to as much as an eighth of the state’s population for as long as five days when dangerously high winds arise,” The Wall Street Journal noted in April. “Communities likely to get shut off worry PG&E will put people in danger, especially the sick and elderly, and cause financial losses with slim hope of compensation.”

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