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PG&E Transmission Lines Caused California's Deadliest Wildfire, State Officials Say

Volunteer rescue workers search for human remains in the rubble of homes burned in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. State officials say the fire was caused by PG&E power lines.
Terry Chea
Volunteer rescue workers search for human remains in the rubble of homes burned in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. State officials say the fire was caused by PG&E power lines.

Electrical transmission lines owned and operated by utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) caused last fall's Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, state fire investigators said Wednesday.

The fire in Northern California's Butte County burned more than 150,000 acres and killed 85 people.

"After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, CAL FIRE has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area" of Butte County, California fire officials said in a statement. The fire had two ignition sites, according to investigators, as the second fire in a different part of the county was consumed by the initial blaze that started near Pulga.

The Cal Fire report has been forwarded to the Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

The finding was not unexpected. PG&E had even pointed to its transmission lines and the dry vegetation around them as a possible culprit in an earnings report issued in February.

"In addition to claims for property damage, business interruption, interest and attorneys' fees, the Utility could be liable for fire suppression costs, evacuation costs, medical expenses, personal injury damages, punitive damages and other damages under other theories of liability, including if the Utility were found to have been negligent," the company said.

The Cal Fire announcement came the same day that PG&E's new CEO, Bill Johnson, was testifying before a state Assembly committee.

"I have made the assumption when I got here that PG&E equipment caused the fire," he said as quoted by The Associated Press. "It's a disappointment that this happened. Let's not do it again."

In a statement released late Wednesday, the utility said that although it has been unable to review Cal Fire's report, the finding of its culpability "is consistent with the company's previous statements."

"We remain committed to working together with state agencies and local communities to make our customers and California safer," the statement added.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted the utility in a court filing related to the company's bankruptcy case. "All should be mindful of PG&E's history of over two decades of mismanagement, misconduct and failed efforts to improve a woeful safety culture," said Newsom.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.