For more than a year, lawyers representing wildfire survivors have been suing PG&E over the Tubbs Fire — at the time the deadliest in California history.
On Thursday, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was exonerated, a rare victory for a utility facing bankruptcy over a staggering number of wildfire lawsuits.
California fire investigators concluded the Tubbs Fire, which swept through Sonoma and Napa counties in October 2017, was caused by an electrical problem on private property. After more than a year of investigation, Cal Fire said investigators did not find any violations of state law.
PG&E stock, which had plummeted since the November Camp Fire, shot up within minutes of the announcement, and closed at $13.95 a share, nearly doubling Thursday. PG&E has said it plans to file for bankruptcy at the end of the month as it faces billions of dollars in wildfire survivor claims.
Following the Cal Fire report, PG&E declined to say whether it still plans to file for bankruptcy, but said the investigators’ conclusion doesn’t erase the company’s troubles: “Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking to reporters at the Capitol, said a PG&E bankruptcy remains “an open-ended question, and that’s a question for them.” He added that he and many others had “maybe lazily” assumed PG&E had caused the Tubbs Fire, and that the Cal Fire report will likely make it more difficult for victims of the blaze to recover damages.
The deadliest of the 2017 fires, the Tubbs Fire started Oct. 8, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,600 structures, many of them in Santa Rosa. A total of 44 people died in Northern California fires that year. The Camp Fire, with 86 fatalities, surpassed the Tubbs Fire as the worst in California history.
Until Thursday, the Tubbs Fire was the only major 2017 Northern California wildfire in which a cause had not been identified.
In its much anticipated report, Cal Fire said its inspectors isolated the sole ignition point to a private residence on Bennett Lane in Calistoga, a small Napa Valley city northeast of Santa Rosa. Investigators said the cause of the electric problem at that residence was “unknown.”
“After a thorough, systematic investigation, taking into account witness statements, opinions of experts, physical evidence, collected electronic data and fire direction indicators, the specific origin area of the Tubbs Fire is near the primary residential structure and immediate area surrounding the structure,” Cal Fire’s investigator wrote. “During my investigation, I eliminated all other causes for the Tubbs Fire, with exception of an electrical-caused fire originating from an unknown event affecting privately owned conductor equipment.”
Cal Fire said earlier this year that sagging PG&E power lines were responsible for at least 12 of the 2017 wildfires in Northern California.
PG&E attorneys previously said their review of evidence at the Tubbs Fire showed that the failed equipment that sparked the inferno did not belong to PG&E, but was on private property. In a federal court filing in late December, the company said it appeared the fire began on a Calistoga property owned by a woman named Ann Zink.
Cal Fire didn’t name her in the report but listed the same address in Calistoga that PG&E cited. Zink could not be reached for comment.
In the report, Cal Fire Battalion Chief John Martinez explicitly ruled out PG&E’s lines and poles that supplied power to the Calistoga property as the fire’s ignition source. However, he said he couldn’t pinpoint an exact point of origin in the private electrical wiring that supplied a pool and pump station on the private land because the fire burned up most of the evidence.
Two lawyers suing PG&E on behalf of Tubbs survivors, Steve Campora and Dario de Ghetaldi, said they couldn’t comment on Cal Fire’s findings or how it would affect their cases because they had not seen the report.
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said the fire destroyed the home and other structures on the Calistoga property, making it hard to determine a precise cause.
“Looking at the burn patterns, it was determined it went back to that specific property,” he said. “It (the cause) is unidentifiable due to the heat of that fire. The house and structures on that property were destroyed.”
Because there was no determination of criminality, Cal Fire will not forward the investigative report to the district attorneys in Napa and Sonoma counties.
PG&E has told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it could face liabilities of as much as $30 billion over the 2017 and 2018 wildfires – including $10 billion from the 2017 fires. It hasn’t offered a breakdown on the potential costs from the Tubbs Fire.
BlueMountain Capital Management, a PG&E Corp. shareholder that’s been protesting the utility’s bankruptcy plans, said Cal Fire’s conclusion “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.”