PG&E Says Unlicensed Electrical Work May Have Sparked Tubbs Fire Disaster

PG&E workers repair power lines in the Coffey Park neighborhood following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire in October 2017.  (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

PG&E has released new details about the start of one of California's most devastating wildfires -- the October 2017 Tubbs Fire -- in a court filing that appears to shift blame onto a handyman the company says performed unlicensed electrical work on a rural property near Calistoga.

The PG&E report is part of a 390-page federal court filing submitted Monday in which the company was required to describe any role it played in starting a devastating series of fires in the fall of 2017 or in igniting the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people in Butte County in November.

Cal Fire is responsible for investigating the blazes and determining their cause. The agency has found that PG&E equipment was involved in starting 18 of the blazes that raced through parts of Northern California starting the night of Oct. 8, 2017. Cal Fire referred 11 of those cases to prosecutors in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Butte and Yuba counties.

So far, however, the firefighting agency has not announced its determination in the Tubbs Fire. That blaze started outside Calistoga and, driven by winds gusting over 60 mph, sped over the hills to Santa Rosa, where it destroyed several neighborhoods. All told, the fire killed 22 people and incinerated about 5,500 homes.

Report Based on Lawsuit Testimony

PG&E's newly filed report on the Tubbs blaze presents an account based largely on depositions taken during ongoing litigation arising from the fire. It backs up earlier company assertions that electrical equipment owned and maintained by a third party -- not PG&E -- touched off the conflagration.

The PG&E document zeroes in on what it describes as customer-owned power lines on an oak-covered 10-acre property on Bennett Lane, 2.5 miles northwest of downtown Calistoga, which was the part-time home of Ann M. Zink.

PG&E ran power from its lines along Bennett Lane to Zink's hillside house. From there, the company says, electricity was distributed to a carport, garage, guesthouse, swimming pool and well by way of lines that Zink owned.

"Specifically, customer-owned lines extended from the house to a customer-owned pole located adjacent to the house. Two customer-owned lines branched off from this pole to feed power to different areas on the property," PG&E's report says. "One of those lines ran to two other customer-owned power poles on the property, powering a water pump and a water storage tank. That line was strung along trees down the hill, and connected to and powered a pump located in Ms. Zink’s well on Bennett Lane."

Caretaker's Role

The document quotes witness depositions to describe an incident eight months before the Tubbs Fire in which the property's longtime caretaker, Michael Andrews, reportedly tried to resolve a problem with one of Zink's power lines. Noting that Andrews "has no electrical training and was not licensed to perform electrical work," PG&E said:

"In February 2017, Mr. Andrews was driving up Ms. Zink’s driveway when he noticed that one of Ms. Zink’s poles 'had broken and was suspended about 3 and a half feet off the ground in the middle of the driveway.' Mr. Andrews then looped a rope around the lines, 'pulled them to where they would come off of the road' and could 'stay suspended off the road by a stake,” and tied the rope so he could proceed up the driveway. The broken pole, at least 10 feet long, remained suspended in the air supported by Ms. Zink’s electrical lines for approximately a week."

PG&E says that with the help of a contractor who also was not licensed to do electrical work, Andrews installed a new pole and reattached the sagging power lines.

"Even though the lines had been suspended in the air for about a week — supporting a portion of broken pole at least 10 feet in length — Mr. Andrews did not replace the lines or connection, but reattached the same lines to the new pole using the old connection," the report says.

The PG&E report does not offer an explanation for how this impromptu repair might have led to further problems on the power line. But it says that when its workers examined evidence at the Bennett Lane location after the fire, they "observed that one of the customer-owned poles was severely burned at the top."

The document also indirectly addresses suggestions that PG&E electrical equipment ignited the fire. The report acknowledges that the utility failed to clear vegetation along portions of its Bennett Lane power line as required by state law. But it quotes several witnesses, who saw the fire shortly after it started, who reported the blaze was not burning immediately adjacent to a power pole where an electrical fault had occurred.

The company added that it has not yet been able to examine sections of power lines and other evidence removed from the scene by Cal Fire.

"As a result, PG&E, its counsel and its expert investigators have not yet been able to view the potentially most significant evidence with respect to any of the October 2017 North Bay wildfires," PG&E said in a separate filing Monday.

'No Set Time' to Complete Probe

Cal Fire spokesman Capt. Scott McLean said Wednesday "there is no set time" for completion of the Tubbs Fire probe and that the agency has "the right to keep control of the collected evidence during the investigation."

The new PG&E disclosures were made as part of the company's voluminous response to a Nov. 27 order from U.S. District Judge William Alsup in the wake of safety concerns raised by the apparent role of a company high-voltage power line in starting Camp Fire.

Alsup is overseeing the company's five-year term of probation imposed after its conviction for violating federal pipeline safety laws before the September 2010 San Bruno disaster. Among other things, he ordered the company to "provide an accurate and complete statement" of its role, if any, in starting wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

PG&E's submission covered the Camp Fire and 23 of the fires that occurred in 2017.

Its Camp Fire document repeats much of what the company and others have already reported: that the blaze began adjacent to a high-voltage line near the community of Pulga, on the North Fork of the Feather River. The report says that a PG&E supervisor on his way to work at Poe Dam was the first to see the blaze, which broke out minutes after an outage on the 115-kilovolt Caribou-Palermo transmission line.

The company has also reported evidence that a hook on one of the line's steel transmission towers broke, apparently allowing an energized piece of equipment to swing free and cause an electrical arc. The so-called C-hook showed signs of wear, PG&E has said.

The company's new Camp Fire filing includes a long list of inspections, mostly conducted by aerial patrols, that covered the transmission tower where the problem occurred. None of those inspections, which dated back to 2008, reported any concerns with the tower.

The last detailed inspection of the problem tower was in 2014. The inspections -- ground-based surveys intended to "look for and document abnormalities that will negatively impact safety, reliability or asset life" -- are required every five years.

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