Report: Damaged PG&E equipment found near Calif. fires' origin
Officials said the locations match suspected ignition points for the Atlas, Nuns, Partrick and Tubbs fires
By David R. Baker and Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. found damaged electrical equipment at or near the suspected starting points of the four biggest Wine Country wildfires last fall, according to reports the utility filed with the state.
The locations match suspected ignition points — reported by The Chronicle in October — for the Atlas, Nuns, Partrick and Tubbs fires. Together, those fires scorched more than 142,800 acres and killed 31 people.
In three of the locations — near the suspected origins of the Atlas, Nuns and Partrick fires — PG&E reported tree limbs or even an entire tree hitting power lines, the result of the fierce windstorm that began Oct. 8.
At the suspected starting point for the Tubbs Fire, near Calistoga, state investigators took possession of several PG&E fuse cutouts, which are designed to stop the flow of electricity on a power line following an electrical surge. Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, also took a PG&E line that had fallen from a fire-damaged home at the site, as well as several sections of power line that belonged to the homeowner.
Cal Fire first identified the four fires’ suspected origin points last fall. The Chronicle sent a reporter to examine each location.
Cal Fire spent the last three months of 2017 battling massive wildfires in both Northern and Southern California, and the agency has not yet identified a cause for any of the blazes that swept through the Wine Country. The agency has, however, said its investigators are examining the possibility that electrical lines sparked those fires.
A PG&E spokesman on Wednesday noted that the investigation remains open and said the company continues to cooperate with Cal Fire.
“The information provided in these reports is preliminary and does not indicate a cause of the wildfires,” spokesman Greg Snapper wrote in an email.
Many North Bay residents have filed lawsuits against PG&E, and the company late last month suspended its dividend, fearing it could be held liable for more than $9 billion in damages.
“I’m encouraged by those reports that suggest PG&E equipment was involved,” said attorney Frank Pitre, whose law firm sued the utility on behalf of several residents, including former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan and his wife.
PG&E in October filed with the California Public Utilities Commission a series of 19 incident reports detailing specific instances in which the company found damage to its equipment in areas struck by the wildfires. The commission, in turn, released those reports to the public in late October but redacted the addresses until Cal Fire could finish gathering evidence for its investigation.
The commission has now placed unredacted versions of the reports online, indicating that Cal Fire has wrapped up the evidence-gathering portion of its investigation. Cal Fire, however, has not given an indication of when the investigation will conclude.
“At this point in time, there is nothing on the horizon,” said Deputy Chief Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman. “We’re meticulous. It’s like reading a book or novel. You start at Chapter 1 and go all the way to the end. You don’t skip ahead.”
Though each fire is being investigated separately, he said Cal Fire may choose to release the findings of several investigations at the same time — whenever that time comes. Some investigations take more than a year.
“It all depends on when they fall into place,” McLean said.
The unredacted PG&E reports posted by the utilities commission show the precise address of each problem PG&E reported. Four of them list addresses that correspond to the suspected fire origin points identified by Cal Fire and visited by The Chronicle:
- 4011 Atlas Peak Road, northeast of Napa.
- 1210 Nuns Canyon Road, near Glen Ellen.
- 1721 Partrick Road, west of Napa.
- 1128 Bennett Lane, near Calistoga.
At each location, PG&E’s brief incident reports describe Cal Fire taking possession of PG&E equipment.
On Bennett Lane, the suspected origin point for the Tubbs Fire, the report also says Cal Fire took several sections of power line owned by one of the homeowners along the road. In a legal filing in November, PG&E alleged that the privately installed and owned line — rather than PG&E’s equipment — may have started the fire.
The home in question was unoccupied when the fire started, the homeowner and representatives for the property management company told The Chronicle in November.
Several other incident reports PG&E filed with the utilities commission last fall include addresses that appear to be near the suspected origin points of other Northern California fires that broke out in early October.
For example, one fire incident report states that PG&E found a broken tree limb and wires down near Ridge Ranch Road and Ridge Oaks Road in Geyserville. That general area is the same location where Cal Fire reported that the 17,357-acre Pocket Fire first ignited in the early hours of Oct. 9.
Another report says PG&E found a broken tree and a wire down on North Busch Lane in Mendocino County. That area is in the vicinity of where Cal Fire described the ignition point for the Redwood Valley Fire, which killed nine people and burned 36,523 acres. The fire started north of Highway 20 and west of the Mendocino National Forest, according to Cal Fire.
Cal Fire said the smaller Sulphur Fire was first reported just before midnight on Oct. 8 off Highway 20 and Sulphur Bank Road in Clearlake. In a report, PG&E said two of its power poles broke along Sulphur Bank Road near Pomo Road, about 1.5 miles from Highway 20.
Two other incidents where PG&E reported downed equipment and broken trees near the communities of Oakmont and Kenwood in Sonoma County were eventually enveloped in the Nuns Fire burn area.
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