Utility’s power lines caused huge 2019 California wildfire
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric transmission lines sparked a wildfire in Northern California wine country last year that destroyed hundreds of homes and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee, fire officials said Thursday.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said investigators determined that lines northeast of Geyserville were responsible for igniting the Kincade Fire last October that ripped through a wide swath of Sonoma County.
Tinder-dry brush and strong winds combined with warm temperatures and low humidity helped the fire spread at extreme rates, the agency said in a statement.
Cal Fire did not release details of its investigation but said its report had been sent to the county district attorney’s office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges.
The fire burned 374 homes and other buildings and injured four people before it was doused two weeks later.
PG&E said Thursday it did not have access to the agency’s investigative report or the evidence collected, and that it looked forward to reviewing both. The utility told regulators last year that its lines were the likely cause of the fire.
PG&E is the nation’s largest utility and recently emerged from bankruptcy caused by the financial fallout from its role in several devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings in 2017 and 2018.
Last month, PG&E took the extraordinary step of pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for a November 2018 wildfire that largely destroyed the city of Paradise. The inferno, known as the Camp Fire, was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
A scathing grand jury report released after that fire found that PG&E repeatedly ignored warnings about its failing power lines, performed inadequate inspections to focus on profits and refused to learn from past catastrophes.
PG&E was fined $4 million by a Butte County Superior Court Judge.
The utility has faced furious criticism from lawmakers and fire victims. It also was blasted for efforts to prevent wildfires last year by turning off power in vast portions of its service territory during high-risk fire weather to avoid winds from knocking down lines or blowing tree branches into them.
The planned blackouts affected more than 2 million people at certain times, and the utility bungled them so badly that it had to publicly apologize and give $86 million in customer refunds.
PG&E has said it expects to have to turn off power in parts of its service territory later this year to reduce wildfire risks during hot, windy weather.