Cal Fire blamed PG&E for another deadly wildfire Tuesday, saying the Cascade Fire in Yuba County last October was caused by “sagging power lines” owned by the utility.
The investigative finding by Cal Fire means Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has now been blamed for 16 fires that erupted in wine country and the Sacramento Valley in early October 2017 and killed a total of 44 people. However, the agency still hasn’t made a determination on the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the deadliest of the fires. The Tubbs Fire killed 24 people.
The Cascade Fire killed four people, injured one firefighter, destroyed 264 buildings and burned through 9,989 acres. PG&E Corp., the utility’s parent, has already told investors that it expects claims from last October’s fires to easily exceed $2.5 billion.
At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed a controversial bill that is designed to shield the utility’s shareholders from future wildfire liabilities by making it easier for the company to pass at least some of the costs onto ratepayers. Senate Bill 901 tells the Public Utilities Commission to determine whether a utility acted properly. Previous law typically made utilities financially liable for wildfire damages even if they weren’t found to be negligent.
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The investigation into the Cascade Fire “found no negligence,” said Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler in an email.
When it comes to the 2017 fires, the PUC also would have to consider the utility’s financial status and “determine the maximum amount the corporation can pay without harming ratepayers or materially impacting its ability to provide adequate and safe service.” PG&E executives had suggested that being forced to pay billions in claims for the 2017 fires could have forced the utility into bankruptcy.
The Cascade Fire began when high wind caused two sagging PG&E power lines to come into contact with each other, creating “an electrical arc,” Cal Fire said in a statement. “The electrical arc deposited hot burning or molten material onto the ground,” causing the fire.
Cal Fire’s report was forwarded to Yuba County’s district attorney, who looked into the possibility of charging PG&E with criminal negligence. However, the DA’s office announced Tuesday that it won’t file charges.
PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email: “We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire report to understand the agency’s perspectives. In the meantime, we are continuing to focus on implementing additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire threats, such as working to remove and reduce dangerous vegetation, improving weather forecasting, upgrading emergency response warnings, making lines and poles stronger in high fire threat areas and taking other actions to make our system, and our customers and communities, even safer in the face of a growing wildfire threat.”