Forest Service opens criminal investigation into Mosquito Fire’s start

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said that USFS and CAL FIRE officials reported in an initial assessment “that the fire started in the area of the utility’s power line"

Brianna Taylor
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The U.S. Forest Service has started a criminal investigation into the cause of the Mosquito Fire and seized equipment belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., according to a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission from PG&E.

The utility said in the Saturday filing that Forest Service and CAL FIRE officials said in an initial assessment that “that the fire started in the area of the utility’s power line on National Forest System lands and that the USFS is performing a criminal investigation into the 2022 Mosquito Fire.”

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mosquito Fire as smoke fills the sky above Foresthill, Calif. on Sept. 7.
An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mosquito Fire as smoke fills the sky above Foresthill, Calif. on Sept. 7. (Photo/Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service)

PG&E also said in the filing that Forest Service officials on Saturday “removed and took possession of one of the utility’s transmission poles and attached equipment.”

The utility had previously disclosed that its equipment was being investigated for the blaze, which has charred more than 76,781 acres (120 square miles) in Placer and El Dorado counties since it began on Sept. 6.

On Friday, residents affected by the Mosquito Fire filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court alleging PG&E is again being accused of putting dollars over public safety.

PG&E officials on Sept. 8 said investigators had placed caution tape around a company transmission pole near the spot where the fire broke out. The utility said it had not noticed anything abnormal at the pole but filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission.

The utility, which was driven into bankruptcy in 2019 by a series of massive wildfires, said it hadn’t observed “damage or abnormal conditions” at the transmission pole or other nearby facilities. Nevertheless, it filed a report about the pole with the Public Utilities Commission, as required by law, “out of an abundance of caution.”

The troubled utility was found criminally responsible for its equipment’s role in a series of wildfires including 2018’s Camp Fire that leveled much of the town of Paradise and remains the deadliest in California history.

The flurry of fires sent the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. It emerged a year later with new leadership and a vow to improve its safety record. But it continues to struggle with wildfire safety, and was blamed by investigators for last year’s Dixie Fire, which burned more than 1 million acres in several Northern California counties.

Earlier this year, it agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines to avoid criminal prosecution in the Dixie Fire and 2019’s Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. It’s facing criminal charges in the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which killed four people.

Containment reaches 85%

Favorable weather has been aiding firefighters as it continues to battle the Mosquito Fire, which is now 85% contained.

Still, warm and dry conditions are allowing hot spots to fester within the Mosquito Fire’s footprint. Cooler temperatures later this week will bring wind but “containment lines are expected to hold up well,” according to a Monday morning incident report from the U.S. Forest Service.

More than 1,200 personnel are assigned to the blaze with the main priority of completing hazard tree mitigation and suppression repairs, according to Monday’s update.

Challenging terrain in the Middle Fork of the American River and south along the Rubicon River is making access difficult for crews and equipment. Instead, aircraft are being used to hold the fire in its current footprint fire using retardant.

The fire has destroyed 78 structures and damaged 13 more. After burning through Volcanoville and threatening Foresthill and Todd Valley, all evacuations have been lifted in both counties.

2 injured fighting blaze

Incident commanders this weekend also disclosed two injuries by contracted firefighters. The first happened on Sept. 9 when a private firefighter injured a wrist during a fall. The firefighter was treated at a hospital.

Another firefighter was hurt on Sept. 15 after stepping in a stump hole, suffering second-degree burns to a leg. That firefighter was taken to UC Davis Medical Center’s burn unit to be treated and has since been released.

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Meanwhile, a small, short-lived wildfire ignited in the Sierra County portion of Tahoe National Forest near Goodyears Bar.

Forest Service officials said the Union Fire was spotted Sunday south of Highway 49 and contained quickly at a third of an acre after crews rappelled and constructed a fireline, and a helicopter was used to drop 16 buckets of water on the flames.

The fire in steep, remote terrain was caused by hold-over lighting, a lightning strike that can ignite fires days later, officials said in a Twitter post.


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