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PG&E Was Responsible for 2019's Kincade Fire, Cal Fire Says

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Firefighters battle the Kincade Fire as it burns a farm in Windsor on Oct. 27, 2019. (PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)

A Pacific Gas & Electric transmission line sparked a wine country wildfire last year that destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee, fire officials said Thursday.

Cal Fire investigators determined that the line northeast of Geyserville was responsible for igniting the Kincade Fire last October that ripped through a wide swath of Sonoma County.

Tinder-dry brush and strong winds combined with warm temperatures and low humidity helped the fire to spread at extreme rates, the agency said in a statement.

The fire started the night of Oct. 23, while winds gusting over 80 mph swept the mountains of northeastern Sonoma County. Cal Fire's initial location for the fire was adjacent to a PG&E transmission line in The Geysers geothermal power field.

PG&E reported the day after the fire started that a 230-kilovolt transmission line near the reported origin point of the flames had suffered an outage at 9:20 p.m., just seven minutes before the blaze began. The utility said Cal Fire personnel had identified a piece of broken equipment on one of the line's towers – a length of cable called a jumper that carries current past insulators – and added that the fire agency was investigating the site.

Cal Fire did not release details of its investigation but said its report had been sent to the county district attorney's office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges.

The fire burned 374 homes and other buildings and injured four people before it was doused two weeks later.

In a statement issued late Thursday, PG&E said it had not yet received Cal Fire's report and that it did not have access to evidence collected by Cal Fire investigators. The utility told regulators last year that its lines were the likely cause of the fire.

"We appreciate all the heroic efforts of the first responders who fought the 2019 Kincade Fire, helped local citizens evacuate and made sure no one perished in the fire," the PG&E statement said. "We look forward to reviewing [Cal Fire's report and evidence] at the appropriate time."

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PG&E, the nation's largest utility, recently emerged from bankruptcy caused by the financial fallout from its role in several devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings in 2017 and 2018.

Last month, PG&E took the extraordinary step of pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the November 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in modern California history which largely destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise.

A PG&E transmission line was also responsible for igniting the Camp Fire.

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A scathing grand jury report released after that fire found that PG&E repeatedly ignored warnings about its failing power lines, performed inadequate inspections to focus on profits and refused to learn from past catastrophes.

PG&E was fined $4 million by a Butte County Superior Court Judge.

The utility has faced furious criticism from lawmakers and fire victims. It also was blasted for efforts to prevent wildfires last year by turning off power in vast portions of its service territory during high-risk fire weather to avoid winds from knocking down lines or blowing tree branches into them.

The planned blackouts affected more than 2 million people at certain times, and the utility bungled them so badly that it had to publicly apologize and give $86 million in customer refunds.

PG&E has said it expects to have to turn off power in parts of its service territory again later this year to reduce wildfire risks during hot, windy weather.

This story has been updated to reflect a statement issued by PG&E. This story includes reporting from The Associated Press and KQED's Dan Brekke.

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