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Investigators Confirm PG&E Power Lines Caused 2018's Camp Fire

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 16, 2019 7:10 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

California fire investigators have determined that the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, was responsible for igniting last fall's Camp Fire. It was the deadliest and most destructive in state history. The wildfire claimed 85 lives in and around the town of Paradise, Calif. PG&E declared bankruptcy in January.

Joining us for more reporting is NPR's Kirk Siegler. He joins us from Culver City. And Kirk, this was expected, right? PG&E said months ago that they thought they'd be found responsible.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Exactly, Audie. But that shouldn't downplay its significance, I don't think. PG&E, we knew, had disclosed an earnings report back in February that one of its transmission lines lost power right before the fire in the area where the fire began. You know, so there's been a lot of scrutiny on its infrastructure up there even before the fire - how old its transmission lines are, how vulnerable they are to major wind events much like what we saw leading up to the Camp Fire, how dry much of the vegetation is around them.

And investigations into the cause of these fires can sometimes take months, even years. You've got forensics teams combing through these remote places. But that this came out within six months shows that it was clearly a priority by the state.

CORNISH: What does this mean for the utility?

SIEGLER: Well, the timing of the release of the report into the investigation is pretty interesting, frankly. This was all made public this afternoon just as PG&E's new CEO, Bill Johnson, was testifying before a state assembly committee up in Sacramento. He was telling lawmakers that ever since he took over the company, he had been operating under the assumption that PG&E caused the fire.

Audie, things were very tense. You could tell. Let's listen in to a little bit more of what he had to say here.

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BILL JOHNSON: This is a - it's not a disappointment. It's a disappointment that this happened. Let's not do it again.

SIEGLER: So officials - PG&E knew this was coming. When the company declared bankruptcy, it cited more than $30 billion in potential liabilities from this and other previous fires. Audie, you've got the town of Paradise, Butte County, Calif., scores more wildfire victims all filing damage claims in the bankruptcy case.

And the fallout, I think, will continue. You know, there's a lot of scrutiny on the company's safety record even now - especially now. As we're going into another fire season, PG&E has said it plans to do things like widen its blackout program - that means turning off the electricity to whole communities when there's high wind events - and other mitigation strategies.

CORNISH: You've been on this Camp Fire story for a long time. Just remind us the scale of this fire.

SIEGLER: Yeah. So this was a shocker for me and many others. I've covered a lot of wildfires around the region. This one was huge - 19,000 structures destroyed, 90% of the entire town of Paradise completely leveled as well as big damage to two other rural communities nearby.

You know, due to the conditions at the time and the overgrown forest and with climate change, you had searing temperatures really late into November. This fire chewed through an acre - roughly an acre of forest every few seconds, came into Paradise, went from a forest fire to an urban wildfire much like, you know, we've tragically been seeing here in California and around the West lately. And folks - some folks just couldn't get out.

So you know, Audie, I think today's news will be seen as maybe bittersweet justice for some folks who lost loved ones or everything they owned. People have been saying up there for years that there had been negligent maintenance of those power lines. But, you know, on the other hand, given the state of the forest and the conditions, anything could've caused this fire - a cigarette butt being thrown out or a spark from a vehicle.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler. Kirk, thank you.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.