PG&E lines blamed for deadliest wildfire in California history

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - State fire investigators have formally determined that Pacific Gas & Electric Co transmission lines caused the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California, a blaze that killed 85 people last year, officials said on Wednesday.

The wind-driven blaze, dubbed the Camp Fire, erupted in the drought-parched Sierra foothills 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco in November 2018 and raced with little warning through the town of Paradise, incinerating much of that community.

Nearly 19,000 homes and other structures were destroyed, and the death toll stands as the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history. Several firefighters were injured.

Investigators “determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated” by PG&E near the small riverfront community of Pulga, about 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Paradise in Butte County, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement.

A second ignition point for the fire was also “determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines” owned and operated by the San Francisco-based utility, Cal Fire said.

The statement gave no details as to precisely how the power lines triggered the flames, or whether investigators determined that PG&E was at fault for lapses in the maintenance of its equipment or vegetation clearance.

A Cal Fire spokesman, Scott McLean, declined to comment, saying the investigators’ report was furnished to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey for further review.

“The investigation into how and why the PG&E transmission line equipment failed is ongoing in an effort to determine if PG&E or any of its personnel have any criminal liability,” Ramsey said in a separate statement.

He said the fact that a PG&E equipment malfunction sparked the fire “had been, essentially, admitted” by the utility in a December 2018 report to state regulators.

PG&E said it had not been able to review the Cal Fire report but accepted investigators’ findings about the fire’s origin near the Pulga area. It added: “We have not been able to form a conclusion as to whether a second fire ignited as a result of vegetation contact with PG&E electrical distribution lines.”

Cal Fire concluded last June that PG&E-owned power lines had sparked a separate series of wildfires that swept Northern California’s wine country in 2017, and found a number of unspecified code violations alleged in several of the blazes it examined. But prosecutors from four affected counties later determined there was no basis to criminally charge the utility in connection with the so-called North Bay fires.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the North Bay and Camp Fires.

The company remains under criminal probation from its conviction for a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion near San Francisco and is a defendant in numerous private civil cases stemming from wildfires.

Shares of PG&E initially fell 3.1 percent in after-hours trading following release of the Cal Fire statement. The stock later recovered and was trading at 0.2 percent above the closing price of $18.10 a share.

Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Mekhla Raina in Bengaluru; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall