Cause of Wine Country Wildfires Likely ‘Several Months’ Away

In this Oct. 11, 2017 photo, smoke rises from fires in Santa Rosa, Calif. Gusting winds and dry air forecast for Thursday, Oct. 12, could drive the next wave of devastating wildfires that are already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history. (Derek Anderson via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Investigators trying to determine the causes of several wildfires that devastated large swaths of California Wine Country this past fall said Friday it will be several more months before their investigations are complete.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told lawmakers and others attending a state Senate committee hearing in Santa Rosa on Friday that the agency was still “several months” away from concluding investigations into the causes of the various fires that broke out simultaneously around Northern California this past October.

Cal Fire will issue a report for each of the major fires, Pimlott said.

The Tubbs Fire ripped through Santa Rosa, while the Atlas Fire devastated numerous wineries and rural residences while threatening both the cities of Napa and Calistoga.

Separately, the Redwood Valley Complex Fire ignited in Mendocino County at approximately the same time as the fires further south.

In addition, about 10 other smaller fires broke out around the region in early October.

While a cause has yet to be identified, numerous reports have indicated transformer explosions and downed power lines in proximity to the fire origination points.

“While the investigations of the fires’ cause are not yet complete, the public has a right to know what utilities’ safety priorities and practices are, how they set them and whether serious consideration has been given to successful practices by others in the industry,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, who represents San Mateo and Santa Clara, said prior to the meeting. “California ratepayers should not have to wait months or years to find out what utilities are doing to protect the safety and security of our electrical grid and the communities it serves.”

Also this week, Assemblyman Jim Wood introduced AB 1919 to enhance protections for residents in disaster areas after numerous reports of price-gouging emerged in communities affected by the state’s worst ever wildfire season.

Wood’s bill would make it a misdemeanor for businesses to raise prices by more than 10 percent in areas where a state of emergency has been declared.

“Following the devastating wildfires in Northern California, we began hearing of some unfortunate cases of price-gouging and abuse,” Wood, a Democrat, said in a statement Friday. “AB 1919 is intended to protect survivors of declared disasters from unscrupulous people who are intentionally taking advantage of them at this very vulnerable time.”

Wood represents parts of Santa Rosa and the northern stretches of Sonoma and Napa counties, all of which were devastated by the Wine Country wildfires. The blazes burned over 200,000 acres in the northern part of the state and killed at least 44 people, making it the deadliest set of fires in the United States in nearly 100 years.

The fires also created untold economic damage and will likely go down as the costliest to date, causing $9.4 billion in insured damages alone.

In the wake of the catastrophic event, residents of Santa Rosa and other affected communities complained about price-gouging, with landlords raising rents and purveyors of other goods and services seeking to cash in on the desperation of the survivors.

“We have received over 60 reports of potential rental price gouging,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in November.

Price-gouging is currently a crime in California, but Wood wants to amend the existing penal codes to enhance the protections and punishments.

Wood’s law would extend the powers of granting a state of emergency to local jurisdictions, prohibit evictions in areas where a state of emergency has been declared, and make evicting someone in these circumstances a separate punishable offense under the penal code.

“This bill will close what’s referred to as the ‘services loophole’ and will prevent landlords from increasing rent during a declared disaster simply by installing a new sink or adding landscaping to an apartment complex,” Wood said. “It will also protect people from eviction during the declared disaster and up to 30 days after the declaration has been lifted.”

Wood also attended the committee hearing in Santa Rosa on Friday, where officials called upon utilities, regulators and private entities to discuss possible improvements in wildfire-prevention measures.

Burned by the Tubbs fire, only a pool remains among the ashes of an Old Redwood Highway complex near Mark West Springs Road, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California. (Karl Mondon /San Jose Mercury News via AP)
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