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PG&E power lines may have sparked deadly Camp Fire

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The Camp Fire rages through the town of Paradise, Calif., in Butte County Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Neal Waters/Zuma Press/TNS)

PARADISE — Downed PG&E power lines, amid high winds, may have sparked the deadly Camp Fire that has destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least nine people, according to hours of firefighter radio transmissions reviewed by Bay Area News Group.

At about 6:33 a.m. Thursday, firefighters were dispatched to a vegetation fire “under the high tension power lines” across the Feather River from Poe Dam, where Cal Fire officials have pinpointed the fire’s origin, according to the transmissions. The first firefighters arrived there at 6:43 a.m and noted the fire was being buttressed by 35 mph winds.

“We’ve got eyes on the vegetation fire. It’s going to be very difficult to access, Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible,” one firefighter told dispatch. “It is on the west side of the river underneath the transmission lines.”

As firefighters rushed to Poe Dam early Thursday morning, each truck acknowledged over the radio, “Copy, power lines down,” as part of safety protocol for firefighters.
The utility, which already has been criticized and sued in a number of other large and deadly fires across California, had announced two days earlier that it might shut down power to parts of Butte County amid forecasts of high wind and low humidity. But it never did.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean emphasized the cause is still under investigation but added that the probe would include “electrical equipment.”

PG&E disclosed in a Friday filing to the state Public Utilities Commission that it had detected an outage on a transmission line in Butte County, occurring about 15 minutes before the fire was first reported. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on that same transmission line a mile northeast of the town of Pulga “in the area of the Camp Fire.” That is the approximate location of Poe Dam.

But PG&E spokesman Jason King said no cause of the fire had been determined.
“We can’t speculate on the cause of the fire. There will be an investigation,” he said.

PG&E faces billions in potential liability because of the role of its power equipment in other destructive wildfires, including those last year in the Wine Country. Stock traders sent PG&E’s share price plunging Friday amid word of the latest round of California blazes.

On Thursday morning, after the first radio call, an immediate, multi-alarm response was sent to the area along Pulga and Camp Creek roads, near the dam that is popular with kayakers and one of PG&E’s 10 hydroelectric stations along the north fork of the river. Google satellite images show PG&E transmission lines above Pulga and Camp Creek roads.

“The (reporting party) is calling from Poe Dam looking across under the high tension power lines. There’s a possible power line hazard,” a dispatcher alerted responding crews, including six engines and a number of personnel.

Meanwhile, at 6:34 a.m. and about eight miles west, another fire crew was dispatched to a report of a tree branch taking down residential power lines in the neighboring town of Magalia.

During last year’s Sonoma and Napa county fires, within the first 90 minutes of the fires’ origin, Sonoma County dispatchers sent fire crews to at least 10 different locations for downed wires and problems with the electrical system amid high winds.
The first firefighter to reach the Poe Dam area Thursday morning quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation and called for an additional 15 engines, four bulldozers, two water tenders, four strike teams and hand crews.

“This has got the potential for a major incident,” he told dispatch, alerting them to evacuate Pulga, the town immediately southwest, and to find air support.

About six minutes later, another firefighter estimated the fire at about 10 acres with a “really good wind on it,” warning that once it left the “maintained vegetation under the power lines” the fire would reach a critical rate of spread when it hit the brush and timber.

On Tuesday night, with a looming forecast of high winds and low humidity, PG&E first tweeted that power might be shut down to certain Northern California counties, including Butte County and about 26,500 customers in cities and towns including Berry Creek, Chico, Forest Ranch, Magalia, Oroville and Paradise.

Over the next 48 hours, the utility tweeted out 17 different warnings of an impending Thursday morning shut-off. It even tweeted out a warning at 7:56 a.m. Thursday, more than an hour after the Camp Fire was reported, that the shut-off was still an option.
PG&E released a statement Thursday afternoon, almost nine hours after the Camp Fire first sparked, calling off the shut down “as weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure.”

“We want to thank our customers for their understanding and for their actions in preparation of a possible Public Safety Power Shutoff,” Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in the statement.” We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and we will only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety and as a last resort during extreme weather conditions to reduce the risk of wildfire.”

On Friday, King declined to get into specifics about why PG&E called off the shut down, saying only: “We chose not to implement the public safety power shut off in any location.”

In its warnings, PG&E had forecast sustained winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour, with gusts of 40 to 50 mph forecasted overnight Wednesday into Thursday, lasting until late afternoon.

When implementing a Public Safety Power Shutoff, the utility factors in strong winds, very low humidity, critically dry vegetation and on-the-ground observations.
PG&E’s stock plunged Friday by almost $8 a share, a more than 16 percent drop amid the fires blazing across the state. The decline wiped out PG&E’s entire gains for the year and was the biggest one-day decline for the stock since 2002.

PG&E could face substantial liability from the Camp Fire if its equipment is deemed to be at fault, but its financial risk has been diminished by a controversial law passed earlier this year. That law allows the utility to pass the costs of fire damage onto ratepayers under some circumstances.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Friday that his office has been in discussions with Cal Fire to preserve the fire scene and any potential evidence for a possible criminal investigation.

Ramsey said he had no information that the Camp Fire was intentionally caused. He also said it was too early to know whether the cause of the fire could have involved negligence.

Attorney Frank Pitre, who is co-counsel representing more than 600 clients suing PG&E over the North Bay fires, said any connection to the utility would trouble him.

“I am just sick to my stomach that PG&E’s wires may be involved. It’s just too tragic for words,” he said. “And I’m angry as hell if it’s true it’s PG&E’s wires again for them to not cut off power when they have a system for that in place.”

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