PG&E workers dissemble broken power lines after the Camp fire ripped through Paradise, Calif., on November 15, 2018. (Joel Angel Juarez/Zuma Press/TNS)

PG&E admits its equipment likely caused California’s worst wildfire

LOS ANGELES — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said Thursday that it was “probable” that its equipment caused the Camp fire that destroyed thousands of homes in Paradise, Calif., and killed 85 people in 2018.

The utility giant, which has filed for bankruptcy protection because of losses from the fire, said that while the investigation is continuing, “the company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp fire.”

The Camp fire was the worst wildfire in California history and has put new pressure on PG&E and other utilities to improve the safety of their power systems.

At least 20 lawsuits have been filed against the utility, accusing it of allowing its equipment to spark the blaze that displaced 50,000 people in Butte County. The plaintiffs argue that the utility didn’t properly maintain power lines around where the fire started and said it had a terrible safety record.

One lawsuit alleges that PG&E has diverted “necessary safety-related expenditures into funding corporate bonuses, boosting shareholder profits, and/or fueling advertising campaigns _ while ignoring the serious and irreparable nature of the public safety threat posed by its aging infrastructure and ineffective vegetation management practices.”

PG&E said a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, which allows the company to continue operating while it comes up with a plan to pay its debts, was the only way to deal with billions of dollars in potential liabilities from a series of deadly wildfires, many of which were caused by the company’s power grid infrastructure.

Financial pressure has been mounting on PG&E since October 2017, when a series of wildfires ravaged Northern California, killing 44 people. The Camp fire last year compounded those problems.

PG&E has blamed its wildfire costs, in part, on climate change, which scientists say is contributing to bigger and hotter fires in California and across the western United States. The company also has pushed lawmakers to rewrite the state’s strict liability laws, which allow utilities to be held liable for wildfires started by their equipment even if they follow all safety rules and aren’t found to be negligent.

PG&E has estimated its potential wildfire liabilities at $30 billion or more, but that figure includes losses from the Tubbs fire, the biggest and deadliest of a series of 2017 Northern California blazes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced last month that the Tubbs fire was not caused by PG&E, as initially believed, which by some estimates could cut the company’s potential liabilities in half.

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