Cal Fire: PG&E Power Lines Did Not Start Fire That Destroyed Parts of Santa Rosa

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A downed power line and the remains of a home and a car are seen in the Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood following the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa.  (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Updated 5:45 p.m. Thursday

After a 15-month investigation into the deadliest of the 2017 Northern California wildfires, Cal Fire on Thursday announced that PG&E equipment was not responsible for starting the Tubbs Fire — the catastrophic blaze that swept over the hills from just outside Calistoga into Santa Rosa.

The fire killed 22 people, destroyed more than 5,000 homes and was responsible for as much as $10 billion in insured property losses.

The Cal Fire investigation found that "a private electrical system adjacent to a residential structure" caused the fire. The agency said that it had not found any violations of state law connected to the fire.

PG&E, which has disputed suggestions that its power lines sparked the fire, is facing hundreds of lawsuits related to the Tubbs Fire.

In a federal court filing last month, the company argued that privately maintained power lines at a home at 1128 Bennett Lane, near Highway 128 outside Calistoga — the point where the Tubbs Fire began just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2017 — sparked the deadly blaze.

PG&E's filing said that a caretaker on the property had undertaken a series of unpermitted, unlicensed repairs on the lines and that there was evidence that equipment was involved in the start of the fire.

Cal Fire's 80-page investigative report says it found no evidence that PG&E equipment ignited the blaze,

The agency's investigator on the case, John Martinez, said determining the precise cause of the fire was difficult because the blaze consumed so much of the evidence.

Martinez noted the presence of a privately owned power pole that may have been involved in the ignition. Martinez said the property's caretaker had described the pole as "woodpeckered so damn bad" that he intended to replace it.

The investigator noted that the pole was nearly completely consumed in the fire, suggesting that it may have snapped and fallen onto the residence.

“I eliminated all other causes for the Tubbs Fire," Martinez wrote in his conclusion, "with the exception of an electrical-caused fire originating from an unknown event affecting privately owned conductor (power lines) or equipment.”

Cal Fire had previously determined that PG&E equipment was responsible for 18 of the more than 170 wildfires that swept Northern California in October 2017. The fire agency said it had found evidence that the utility may have violated state law in 11 of those incidents and referred cases to local prosecutors.

Frank Pitre, one of the attorneys involved in the Tubbs Fire litigation, said Thursday he was unconvinced by the Cal Fire findings on the blaze's origin.

“We have evidence that suggests that the origin of the fire is not the place that’s identified by Cal Fire,” he said.

That evidence involves a pair of fuses that blew on a PG&E power pole along the road adjacent to 1128 Bennett Lane. The fuses, which melt and expel hot metal when they detect a fault on a power line, may have dropped hot metal into roadside vegetation that PG&E has acknowledged it failed to clear as required by state law.

Last year, plaintiffs' investigators found evidence of metal in the area where the fuses blew.

Pitre added that he believes PG&E should have proactively turned off the power the night of the North Bay fires -- a precautionary step it didn't start taking until last fall's fire season.

“If PG&E had implemented a de-energization policy and been proactive, we never would have had the Tubbs Fire," Pitre said.

Patrick McCallum, who lost his home in the Tubbs Fire and has been lobbying on behalf of fire victims in the state Capitol for the past year, agreed that the Cal Fire report isn't the last word in the fight between the utility and fire victims.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my God, what is this going to do for the victims [whose] ... ability to restore their lives and rebuild were dependent on this,' " he said. "Then my rational side came in -- and it's not over."

McCallum noted that many of the people in Sonoma County were underinsured, because of the high property costs, and so are depending on being able to sue PG&E to make up the difference. He said Tubbs Fire victims should contact their lawyers and keep fighting.

As recently as Nov. 5, in a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, PG&E said the company had concluded it was "probable" it would incur losses due to claims arising from some of the October 2017 blazes -- including the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County, which killed nine people, and Nuns Fire in Sonoma County, which killed three.

Commenting on several other wildfires, including the Tubbs Fire, PG&E said in the same document it had "not concluded that a loss arising from those fires is probable" -- a judgment the company said could change as new facts emerged.

Nevertheless, the utility earlier this month announced it plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because it faces at least $30 billion in potential liabilities.

Those possible liabilities stem from other fires that started in October 2017 and from last November's Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the community of Paradise.

In a statement after Cal Fire's announcement on the Tubbs Fire, PG&E emphasized the legal and financial hurdles ahead.

"Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation,” the company said. "Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims.”

PG&E's declared intention to seek bankruptcy protection has drawn criticism from investors who say the company remains solvent and is failing in its duty to shareholders.

“The news from Cal Fire that PG&E did not cause the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire is yet another example of why the company shouldn't be rushing to file for bankruptcy, which would be totally unnecessary and bad for all stakeholders,” said a spokesperson for BlueMountain Capital Management, an investor critical of the bankruptcy plan.

Victims like McCallum are also skeptical that PG&E actually needs to file for Chapter 11 protections.

The very strength of the lawsuits against PG&E helps the company argue for bankruptcy, said Stanford law professor Robert Rabin.

"A strong case can be made out that faulty maintenance and faulty attention to vegetation surrounding the power lines was negligent, perhaps grossly negligent, on the part of PG&E," he said.

But if a bankruptcy judge consolidates some of the hundreds of lawsuits against PG&E, fire victims could see smaller settlements. That's why Rabin expects to see fire plaintiffs, their lawyers and shareholders continue to fight the possible bankruptcy.

"They would like to see their clients reimbursed for as close to complete recovery of the loss that they suffered as they could," he said.

But California Gov. Gavin Newsom said only PG&E leadership can answer the question of whether bankruptcy protection is necessary.

"They will make that determination. The state of California cannot make that determination for them. They have the right to make that determination and we will respond accordingly," he said.

PG&E shares, which have been battered since the company disclosed its equipment might have been involved in igniting the Camp Fire last Nov. 8, were up 75 percent in the hours after Cal Fire released its Tubbs Fire report.

Newsom said he remains in constant contact with PG&E leaders, and remains focused on supporting wildfire victims and ratepayers. But if the company's finances get handed over to a bankruptcy court next week, it's unclear how much power Newsom -- or any other state leaders -- will be able to exert.

KQED's Marisa Lagos, Lily Jamali, Lisa Pickoff-White and Ted Goldberg contributed to this report.