PG&E Transmission Tower Broke Near Origin of Massive California Wildfire

Embers fly across a roadway as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of Sonoma County, Calif., on Thursday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) – A malfunction at a PG&E transmission tower may have caused the 10,000-acre wildfire burning out of control in Northern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility, told a state regulators that a broken jumper cable on its transmission cable likely sparked the Kincade Fire, which broke out late Wednesday and is zero percent contained according to the latest Cal Fire report Thursday afternoon.

“On-site Cal Fire personnel brought to the troubleman’s attention what appeared to be a broken jumper on the same tower,” said PG&E in the report filed Thursday with the California Public Utility Commission. A troubleman is company lingo for a technician.

PG&E sent a technician to the area after experiencing problems obtaining a response from the 230,000-volt transmission line at around 9:20 p.m. Wednesday night, the report says. The technician arrived to find Cal Fire had cordoned off the transmission tower, which is near where the Kincade Fire sparked.

The report says the information is preliminary. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to Cal Fire.

Thursday’s admission is another in a litany of recent issues for the embattled utility, mired in bankruptcy proceedings and furious customers rankled by frequent pre-emptive blackouts during high fire danger which they blame on corporate mismanagement and deferred maintenance.

PG&E equipment malfunction has been blamed for the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most costly wildfire in modern state history.

The Kincade Fire has destroyed several structures including homes near Geyserville, a small unincorporated town about 22 miles north of Santa Rosa. Fire officials called for the evacuation of Geyserville after the fire jumped Highway 128 in the morning. About 2,000 people have left their homes so far, with the fire mostly confined to the less populated hills north of Healdsburg.

Several wineries are threatened by the fire, recalling the Tubbs Fire that sparked more than 2 years ago and put a serious dent California’s robust wine industry by destroying some of the most iconic vineyards and wineries in the world.

Wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph have also hampered the firefighting effort.

“The winds, the grass, the brush – the nature of the fuels make it a difficult fire to contain,” McLean said. “We definitely have a fight on our hands.”

The River Rock Casino has been evacuated and is threatened.

The wildfire rages even as PG&E has enacted another round of power shutoffs, affecting 17 counties throughout the northern reach of the state.

Residents in La Honda, a pastoral enclave nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, are reeling from an outage that comes on the heels of a four-day voluntary outage two weeks ago.

“I don’t know the politics behind it, but I know they don’t think of the little guy,” said Kathleen Ingram, on her way to buy groceries and fuel for a generator lent by a well-meaning neighbor.

“I only have $40 in my pocket right now and I have to spend most of that on gas,” Ingram said.

Ingram also saw her power turned off two weeks ago during the first round of the pre-emptive power outages enacted by PG&E.

“I lost $360 worth of groceries,” she said. “There were piles and piles of spoiled bags.”

What is most difficult, Ingram said, is the uncertainty.

Many residents operated under the impression that the power would be turned back on by noon Thursday, but others said they heard it would remain off through the weekend.

“Our neighbor told us there was another storm expected Saturday and Sunday and that it was easier for PG&E to leave the power off through Sunday, maybe even Monday,” Ingram said.

For people who rely on medical devices to treat life-threatening ailments, such uncertainty can be fatal.

Governor Gavin Newsom sent a letter Thursday to all three investor-owned utilities operating in the state demanding better communication.

“Going forward, it is critical that your utilities adhere to the agreements and protocols to provide transparent and consistent notification to state and local government officials, to provide adequately resourced community resource centers, and to plan for and meet the needs of your vulnerable customers,” Newsom said in the letter.

The protocols include 72-hour notice to corresponding state and local agencies that include a level of detail regarding the location and duration of the power outages.

“We don’t know when the power is going back on,” said Kathleen Moazed, another La Honda resident who was picking up packages at the post office, which remained open despite a lack of power. “PG&E handled this whole thing horribly. The maintenance they are talking about should have been performed 20 or 30 years ago.”

Kevin Miles agreed.

“I appreciate the workers at PG&E, but they should’ve done a better job cutting the trees away from the lines,” he said. “They need to be proactive, not reactive.”

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