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PG&E responsible for three Northern California wildfires, Cal Fire alleges

Cal Fire alleged Friday that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. failed to remove and cut back trees around power lines that sparked three wildfires in Butte and Nevada Counties in October.

In all, nearly 1,000 acres burned and 60 structures were destroyed by the three fires that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes.

The fires were among more than 170 blazes that charred over 245,000 acres in Northern California last October. Cal Fire findings are still pending in most of those cases. PG&E could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages if Cal Fire links the company's equipment to the worst of what became the largest and most destructive wildfires in state history that month.

The McCourtney and Lobo Fires began in Nevada County the night of Oct. 8, and Cal Fire investigators found evidence that PG&E violated state law that sets specific clearance distances for vegetation around electrical lines. The agency said a tree fell onto a PG&E power line sparking the McCourtney Fire, a blaze that took out 76 acres and 13 buildings. A tree also made contact with company's lines to ignite the Lobo Fire, which burned 47 structures and 821 acres.

Investigators discovered similar evidence related to the Honey Fire in Butte County, which ignited when an Oak branch hit PG&E power lines during the morning of Oct. 9, according to Cal Fire. The Honey Fire caused the least amount of destruction of three fires and did not take out any structures.

"We’ve determined a cause," said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman. "Now we turn it over to local district attorneys who will take that information and proceed forward on the legal aspect."

The report cleared PG&E of responsibility for causing the La Porte Fire, which burned 74 buildings in Butte County. The 8,417-acre blaze was the most destructive of the four fires that Cal Fire released causes for on Friday.

PG&E responded that it inspects and monitors every overhead line each year and prunes or removes nearly 1.4 million trees annually.

"We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire reports to understand the agency’s perspectives," PG&E said in a statement. "Based on the information we have so far, we believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards."

The findings were unveiled as PG&E attempts to convince lawmakers in Sacramento to reduce its property damage liability related to wildfires. The company and others are arguing that the deadly 2017 wildfire season was the result of climate change, and utilities should not pay the price for Mother Nature's "new normal."

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said the investigations prove PG&E's narrative is a ruse.

“What the investigation found is clearly the old normal," Hill said in a statement. "In three cases, there was vegetation that investigators deemed too close to PG&E power lines: trees that should have been maintained but were not."

State laws and regulations currently require utilities to provide compensation if a property that they serve is damaged by their equipment, even if investigators fail to prove the company behaved negligently.

PG&E can ask the California Public Utilities Commission to allow it to pass costs to customers through higher monthly charges, which is typically approved if the utility can show its operations were consistent with best practices. If the company failed to cut back its trees, for example, those costs could shift to shareholders.

"Liability regardless of negligence undermines the financial health of the state’s utilities, discourages investment in California and has the potential to materially impact the ability of utilities to access the capital markets to fund utility operations and California’s bold clean energy vision," PG&E said in a statement.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order and provided $96 million in his 2018-19 budget to combat tree mortality and improve forest management to offset future wildfires earlier this month. The state also plans to spend $160 million from cap-and-trade revenues on additional fire protection.

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