PG&E Equipment Blamed for 2019 Sonoma County Wildfire

Embers fly across a roadway as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of Sonoma County, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Less than three weeks after Pacific Gas and Electric emerged from bankruptcy brought on by crushing wildfire liabilities, California fire officials on Thursday blamed PG&E equipment for causing another blaze — the Kincade Fire that scorched over 77,000 acres in Sonoma County in 2019.

In a brief statement issued Thursday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, said its investigators found the blaze was caused by PG&E transmission lines northeast of Geyserville, an unincorporated community about 70 miles north of San Francisco.

The fire started on Oct. 23, 2019, and burned for 12 days, destroying 374 structures and forcing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.

“Tinder dry vegetation and strong winds combined with low humidity and warm temperatures contributed to extreme rates of fire spread,” CalFire said in its statement.

A CalFire spokeswoman said the agency turned its investigative report over to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and is not releasing the report publicly at this time.

PG&E said in a statement Thursday that it does not have access to CalFire’s investigative report or the evidence it collected, but it looks forward to reviewing those materials “at the appropriate time.”

“We appreciate all the heroic efforts of the first responders who fought the 2019 Kincade Fire, helped local citizens evacuate and made sure no one perished in the fire,” PG&E spokesperson Ari Vanrenen said. “We want our customers and communities to know that safety is our most important responsibility and that we are working hard every day to reduce wildfire risk throughout our service area.”

The report comes after more than 50 businesses sued the utility giant in Sonoma County Superior Court last week seeking compensation for property damage caused by the Kincade Fire.

This could be one of the first fires in which damages will be covered by a multibillion-dollar insurance account created by the California’s Assembly Bill 1054. The insurance account is funded equally by private utility shareholders and ratepayers through a $2.50 surcharge on monthly utility bills.

PG&E just gained the right to participate in the wildfire fund by meeting a June 30 deadline to get its bankruptcy plan confirmed.

The utility acknowledged in October 2019 that a broken jumper cable on one of its transmission towers in Sonoma County likely sparked the Kincade Fire.

This past February, the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion ordered PG&E to answer questions about its maintenance and inspections of jumper cables.

In April, U.S. District Judge William Alsup cited the “problematic” jumper cable as one of several reasons why the company should be forced to submit to stricter probation terms, including conditions that it keep records on the age of every piece of transmission line equipment and videotape all inspections. Alsup has since postponed imposing those conditions while awaiting feedback from PG&E, California regulators, and other stakeholders on the feasibility of implementing those changes and alternative recommendations.

PG&E exited bankruptcy with a new interim CEO and board of directors on July 1 after paying $25.5 billion in settlements for wildfires sparked by the company’s equipment in 2015, 2017 and 2018. PG&E paid $1 billion to regional and local government entities, $11 billion for insurers who covered wildfire losses and $13.5 billion through a mixture of cash and stock for all other wildfire victims. A 20% drop in the company’s stock price over the last two months has raised doubts as to whether fire victims will get the full $6.75 billion in stock that was expected.

The California Public Utilities Commission hit PG&E with a record $2 billion fine in May for its role in sparking a series of destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

In June, the company also pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of recklessly starting the Camp Fire, the most deadly and destructive fire in California history. A Butte County grand jury investigation found the company repeatedly ignored warning signs about its antiquated power equipment, failed to learn from past tragedies and conducted inadequate inspections as it focused on profits over safety.

The Kincade Fire was the largest wildfire in Sonoma County history, burning more than twice the 36,800 acres scorched by the Tubbs Fire in 2017. The Tubbs Fire was more deadly and destructive, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,600 buildings. No people were killed in the Kincade Fire.

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