The Camp Fire in northern California is the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, having killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in the area around Paradise, CA. Insured losses from the fire now top $7 billion. The question that remains is what caused this disaster.
Even before the fire was contained last month there was a strong suspicion that it had started as a result of downed power lines operated by Pacific Gas and Electric. Tuesday the company released a letter revealing the initial findings of its own investigation.
On November 8, 2018, at approximately 6:15 a.m., the PG&E Caribou-Palermo 115kV Transmission Line relayed and deenergized. One customer was impacted by the transmission
outage. At approximately 6:30 a.m. a PG&E employee observed fire in the vicinity of Tower :27/222, and this observation was reported to 911 by PG&E employees. In the afternoon of
November 8, PG&E observed damage on the line at Tower :27/222, located near Camp Creek and Pulga Roads, near the Town of Pulga. Specifically, an aerial patrol identified that on
Tower :27/222, a suspension insulator supporting a transposition jumper had separated from an arm on the tower…
On November 14, 2018, as part of its investigation of the Camp Fire, CAL FIRE requested assistance collecting assets from the two towers. PG&E assisted CAL FIRE with the requested collection, and Commission staff was on site to observe the collection. At the time of the collection at Tower :27/222, PG&E observed a broken C-hook attached to the separated suspension insulator that had connected the suspension insulator to a tower arm, along with wear at the connection point. In addition, PG&E observed a flash mark on Tower :27/222 near where the transposition jumper was suspended and damage to the transposition jumper and suspension insulator.
PG&E had reportedly warned customers it might need to shut off power in the area before the fire started because strong winds created a danger of downed power lines which could spark a fire. The company never did cut power but it did reveal last month that it had experienced a short in the area near where the fire started at about the same time the fire started. However, the new letter also reveals there was a 2nd power outage nearby on the same morning.
In addition to the events on the Caribou-Palermo 115kV Transmission Line, on November 8, 2018, at approximately 6:45 a.m., the PG&E Big Bend 1101 12 kV Circuit experienced an
outage. Four customers on Flea Mountain were affected by the distribution outage. On November 9, 2018, a PG&E employee on patrol arrived at the location of the pole with Line
Recloser (“LR”) 1704 on the Big Bend 1101 Circuit and observed that the pole and other equipment was on the ground with bullets and bullet holes at the break point of the pole and
on the equipment.
The presence of bullet holes seems odd, but the description doesn’t give a lot of information about this second outage. Most importantly, it doesn’t say whether there was evidence the downed power line had sparked a fire at that spot. While it’s possible someone was shooting at the pole that morning, it also seems possible someone had fired the shots earlier and the pole broke at the weakened point because of the strong winds.
PG&E is already facing 20 lawsuits from survivors of the fire and that could be just a start. From the LA Times:
One lawsuit points to a small metal hook on an electrical transmission tower as the culprit in the devastating Camp fire. When it failed, the suit alleges, an uninsulated wire touched the tower, caused sparks and ignited the blaze.
Other suits filed after California’s deadliest wildfire blame the general decay of the region’s electrical infrastructure and the failure to trim trees and brush that grew too close to poles and power lines.
While authorities have yet to determine an official cause of the Camp fire, at least 20 lawsuits have been filed against Pacific Gas & Electric, accusing the utility of allowing its equipment to spark the blaze that killed 86 and displaced up to 50,000 people in Butte County.
So the determination of what exactly caused the fire is going to probably result in billions of dollars in settlements eventually. The question now is whether PG&E, which has already been found responsible for several other deadly wildfires, will go bankrupt or find some way to bill customers over time for the damages.
KCRA 3 News in Sacramento contacted PG&E and asked them to clarify the information in the letter, particularly the part about the downed pole with the bullet holes. As you can see in this report, the utility company sent them a generic response that didn’t clarify anything.