Cal Fire's Official Finding: PG&E Power Lines Touched Off Camp Fire

3 min
PG&E transmission line towers on the Caribou-Palermo line are seen adjacent to the Feather River in Butte County, close to the spot where officials say the Camp Fire began. In February, PG&E said it's "probable" that its equipment caused the blaze, the deadliest and most destructive in modern California history. (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

Updated 5:35 p.m. Wednesday

Cal Fire announced Wednesday that its investigation into last November's Camp Fire has confirmed that a PG&E transmission line sparked the blaze that within hours became the deadliest and most destructive wildland conflagration in California history.

The transmission line, running along the Feather River near a PG&E dam and powerhouse, has been suspected as the cause since the day after the fire began just before dawn last Nov. 8.

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PG&E reported on Nov. 9 that the line had experienced an unspecified problem just minutes before a company employee spotted flames in the area.

High winds whipped the fire into an inferno that leaped through dry brush and trees across ridges and canyons into the communities of Paradise, Concow and Magalia. The fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.

Cal Fire released its conclusions about the fire's origin — which included confirmation of a second origin point adjacent to a PG&E distribution line — in a brief press release.

Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler said the probe, which involved hundreds of hours of work by agency investigators, "determined there was probable cause that violations of state laws have occurred."

The full report remains under wraps as the office of Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey continues a criminal investigation into PG&E's role in starting the fire.

Ramsey declined to discuss details of the report in an interview Wednesday.

"It's pretty clear who the target suspect — the corporation of interest — is," Ramsey said. "They are answering a number of questions for us, and there are a number of judicial papers that have been served to make sure those questions are fully answered."

When the criminal investigation was disclosed last month, Ramsey said potential offenses could include violations of Sections 4292 and 4293 of the state's Public Resources Code, which regulate clearance distances between power lines and surrounding vegetation, up to reckless arson and involuntary manslaughter.

PG&E disclosed last December that crews examining a steel transmission tower at the fire's origin point discovered a broken attachment hook and a "flash mark" from an apparent electrical arc. The broken hook may have allowed a piece of electrically charged equipment to swing free and come close enough to the tower to arc, providing the spark that ignited the blaze.

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The utility said in a regulatory filing in February that it was "probable" that investigators would conclude the company's equipment had caused the fire.

Bill Johnson, PG&E's newly anointed CEO, said in a state legislative hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday that he had assumed the company would be found responsible given its earlier statements.

“I’m disappointed this happened," Johnson said. "Let’s not do it again.”

Amanda Riddle, an attorney representing about 1,800 victims of the Camp Fire, said the Cal Fire report "confirms what we already knew, which is that PG&E's electrical transmission tower caused the Camp Fire."

"I think it helps the public's understanding of the cause of the fire," she said. "It helps members of the public who were impacted, understand that they have a right to compensation from PG&E."

KQED's Marisa Lagos and Tara Siler contributed to this report.

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