Report: Power lines sparked Calif. wildfires
Officials said PG&E power lines ignited at least two fires, marking the first public reports into what caused some of the blazes that erupted that night
By Julie Johnson
The Press Democrat
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Santa Rosa city fire investigators have determined that PG&E power lines buffeted by heavy winds the night of Oct. 8 ignited at least two small fires in city neighborhoods, marking the first public reports by government authorities into what caused some of the dozens of blazes that erupted that night and became the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history.
The findings, outlined in records obtained by The Press Democrat, focus on two smaller, lesser-known fires that burned separately from the large blazes that swept across the North Bay late Oct 8. and early Oct. 9, destroying 6,200 homes and claiming 40 lives.
In both cases -- a fire that destroyed two homes on Sullivan Way near Howarth Park and another quarter-acre fire that damaged an outbuilding at a Montessori school on Brush Creek Road -- investigators with the Santa Rosa Fire Department ruled that strong winds caused the PG&E's power lines to arc, throw sparks and set fire to dry vegetation.
"It was determined that the fire damage to the site was a direct result of the high winds causing the power lines to arc, starting a fire in the combustible vegetation," Fire Marshal Scott Moon wrote in his narrative statement about the Brush Creek blaze.
The city reports, completed late last year and early this year, comes as parallel investigations by Cal Fire and the state Public Utilities Commission continue into the cause of the devastating fires. Those inquiries, expected to hold the most sway in assigning any responsibility for the fires' causes, could be months or more away from completion, according to state officials.
In the meantime, Santa Rosa fire investigators found that three main factors combined to cause the pair of neighborhood fires Oct. 8: powerful, dry winds that night, a landscape parched by drought and live electrical equipment that set fire to surrounding brush.
"The winds were definitely a contributing factor to the causes," Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said. Gusts peaked at dawn on Oct. 9 at 68 mph within city limits, according to federal weather data.
"If we didn't have the winds, we wouldn't have had these issues," Lowenthal said.
The city reports describe the fires' causes as acts of nature, but investigators clearly conclude that sparks from arcing power lines controlled by PG&E started the fires. In one of the fires, arcing power lines continued to spark new flames as firefighters worked to put out existing ones, prompting a response from PG&E crews, investigators noted.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras declined to comment on the new reports or the mounting number of lawsuits filed by burned-out residents against the utility giant in connection with October's fires.
"What I can tell you at this point is that there has been no determination on the causes of the fires (under investigation by the state) and we remain focused on doing everything we can to help Sonoma County recover and rebuild," Contreras said Friday.
More than 100 lawsuits filed by displaced residents are pending before a San Francisco judge claiming the utility failed to maintain and repair its power lines and prepare for the kind of high winds that were forecast and arrived that night.
In addition, Sonoma County government officials last week announced their plans to sue PG&E, seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages to compensate for debris removal costs and damaged infrastructure. Napa, Solano, Yuba, Lake and Mendocino counties are expected to join the case, officials said.
Insurance claims from the Northern California fires have grown to $10 billion, with the largest share of losses in Sonoma County, where 5,130 homes burned and 24 people were killed.
Santa Rosa city officials have yet to signal whether they will join the legal fray. City Attorney Sue Gallagher said the City Council "is reviewing its options but has made no decision regarding potential litigation against PG&E."
In public reports to state regulators, PG&E identified damaged power poles and downed power lines it owns in areas near the origins of the biggest blazes, including the Tubbs fire that started north of Calistoga and spread into Santa Rosa, leveling the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods and killing 22 people.
The smaller fires on Brush Creek Road and Sullivan Way in east Santa Rosa were first reported before the massive Tubbs fire reached city limits about 1 a.m., critical timing because firefighting resources were still available; within hours they would be maxed out, with local crews stretched thin across a 40-mile front in Sonoma County.
About 10:15 p.m., a call came from Brush Creek Montessori School south of Montecito Boulevard. Fire spread to about a quarter acre of school grounds, destroying a wood handball board and a chicken coop.
Firefighters at the scene described seeing overhead power lines arcing, sparking and setting fires in the grass and vegetation even as crews battled existing flames. A fire captain interviewed for the investigation noted that PG&E crews were requested and responded to secure the lines.
The city's Nov. 16 report identified the high winds as a "factor contributing to ignition" but power equipment as the cause of the blaze.
"The cause has been determined to be the result of arcing electrical lines igniting vegetation, an outbuilding and a handball board on the school property," Moon wrote in his report.
The fire on Sullivan Way was first reported about 12:15 a.m. Oct. 9 along a hillside neighborhood abutting the woodlands of Howarth Park.
A neighbor told fire investigators she saw "flashes of light" across the street from her house "before the fire started in the vegetation on the slope across the street," according to the city report on the blaze. She said she saw an arcing power line that ran through a tree.
A man who lived at one of the burned homes told fire investigators he was in the backyard about 11:30 p.m. when the smell of smoke sent him to check the front yard. He saw "fire moving up the hill" from the street, burning into brush at the driveway shared with a neighbor, according to the report.
He and other neighbors went door to door, pounding and yelling for others to flee, neighbor Lynette Wong said last week. Many neighbors -- including Wong, her husband and their 13-year-old daughter -- escaped in their cars, driving through embers and thick smoke.
Two homes were destroyed and three firefighters strained or sprained their knees while fighting the fire, according to the report. The residents of those homes couldn't be reached for comment last week.
A PG&E lineman assigned to troubleshoot problems told Moon that "a neutral line broke in the trees along Sullivan Way" and "slipped out of the spreader and the line slid into a hot phase resulting in an arcing condition," according to the report, finalized Jan. 17.
Moon concluded that the wind caused overhead power lines traversing tree branches to break and send sparks into dry vegetation.
"Ignition of vegetation resulted from the arcing overhead power lines that were damaged by the extreme winds, spreading fire upslope and into the two structures," Moon said, referring to the two homes destroyed on Sullivan Way.
Wong, a neighbor to one of the burned homes, said she's most concerned about what appears to be a lack of fire prevention measures taken on private and public properties in the area, leaving areas with thick, drought-parched underbrush, including those around neighborhood utility equipment.
"I don't care about blaming a company for the fire, but it should be a no-brainer to bury power lines," said Wong. Her family returned home after a week to noxious smoke damage that required an extensive cleaning job.
Final reports on several other smaller fires that started Oct. 8 inside Santa Rosa are pending. The city is not investigating the major blazes because they started outside city limits.
It's not clear what influence, if any, Santa Rosa's reports could have over the legal jockeying now underway over liability in the firestorm. Investigations by Cal Fire and state utility regulators are likely to hold far more sway in that process.
After the 2015 Butte fire killed two people and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes, mostly in Calaveras County, Cal Fire investigators determined it was caused when a single gray pine hit a power pole and found PG&E had failed to properly maintain a stand of trees near its power line, causing the tree to weaken and fall.
The California Public Utilities Commission assessed $8.3 million in fines on the utility, and a Sacramento judge in June ruled PG&E was liable for the property damage, estimated at about $57 million.
Wind was not a factor in the 2015 Butte fire -- Cal Fire estimated the wind was about 5 mph in the area.
But lawyers representing North Bay fire victims have signaled they will argue that extreme weather conditions the night the October fires erupted do not clear PG&E of responsibility in the disaster. They allege the company failed to properly maintain its lines and poles and take readily available precautionary measures to prevent equipment-caused fires at a time when meteorologists issued public warnings about increased fire risk, forecasting low humidity, dry fuel and high winds.
"What caused the spark? Because wind by itself does nothing," to start a fire, said Burlingame attorney Frank Pitre, who is part of a group of five lawyers representing about 300 households and individuals suing PG&E over the October fires and who is also representing residents suing the utility in the Butte fire.
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said state investigators were still completing their work determining how the October fires started, and they had no public timeline for when they might be done. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said in late January that his agency was months or more away from finishing its work.
"Investigating a quarter-acre fire is much different than (fires across) tens of thousands of acres," McLean said.
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