Betsy Cowley lives in Pulga, a tiny town east of Chico, where the Camp Fire started.
Damon Arthur, Record Searchlight
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Thursday acknowledged its equipment likely sparked the deadly Camp Fire, which devastated the town of Paradise and surrounding communities in far Northern California last fall.
“The company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire,” the utility said in a news release that accompanied a filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, its strongest such statement to date as it faces lawsuits and fury over its role in the deadliest wildfire in state history.
The filing also alerts shareholders that the regulator expects $10.5 billion in charges as a result, and notes the figure could go far higher and “raise substantial doubt about PG&E Corporation’s and the utility’s ability to continue as going concerns.”
The utility’s filing also said the cause of the Camp Fire remains under investigation.
Butte County spokeswoman Casey Hatcher noted the county sued PG&E in January. That suit alleges the Camp Fire began because of failures in electrical infrastructure owned by the utility giant.
“At this point, the county continues to dialogue with PG&E to settle the claim for damages,” Hatcher said.
The Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history, killed 86 people after starting Nov. 8, 2018. It destroyed about 14,000 homes and was the costliest natural disaster in the world in 2018 and deadliest wildfire in 100 years in the U.S.
PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo declined additional comment beyond the filing and news release.
What happens next, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said, will depend on the official findings about what caused the Camp Fire and what is decided in bankruptcy court. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in late January, as it faced billions in wildfire-related claims.
“I think there is some evidence out there that they haven’t been maintaining their lines like they should be. Certainly, if that is true, they need to be held accountable,” Jones said.
She also drew a distinction between PG&E’s corporate actions and those of its employees, including the 3,000 PG&E workers Jones credited with spending more than two months restoring electrical power to the town.
“I don’t want to see that diminished because that was a sacrifice on their part,” said Jones. “I just want to distinguish between what the corporate people decide on maintenance and what the workers are doing to help just ordinary people get their lives back.”
PG&E’s filing notes that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection publicly identified coordinates for the Camp Fire near a tower on PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo transmission line.
According to Cal Fire, the blaze started at 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018.
About three minutes before that, a PG&E employee saw fire in the area of the tower and called 911, PG&E said. And 15 minutes earlier, the Caribou-Palermo line that passes through the ignition point went out.
Later that day, an aerial patrol noticed a suspension insulator had separated from an arm on the tower, PG&E said. Insulators are a common feature on transmission lines, usually appearing as a stack of disks that support or anchor charged lines while not transmitting their electricity to the tower.
Then, six days after the Camp Fire started, PG&E said it discovered damage to a “C-hook” attached to the insulator, meant to connect it to the tower arm. There was wear at the connection point, the utility said.
PG&E also said a flash mark could be seen on the tower near the failed hook.
That entire transmission line, which connects the Caribou Powerhouse in Plumas County with the Palermo Substation in Butte County, has been out of commission since December, PG&E said.
Recent inspections have turned up more issues with equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced, the release said. The line won’t be recharged until “it is verified to be fully safe,” and if that standard can’t be met it will be decommissioned.
“We recognize that more must be done to adapt to and address the increasing threat of wildfires and extreme weather in order to keep our customers and communities safe,” PG&E interim CEO John Simon said in a statement. “We are taking action now on important safety and maintenance measures identified through our accelerated and enhanced safety inspections and will continue to keep our regulators, customers and investors informed of our efforts.”
Return to Paradise: Camp Fire evacuees search ashes of their homes for salvageable items
PG&E also recorded a new $1 billion pretax charge related to the 2017 Atlas and Cascade fires in Northern California. Those add to a $2.5 billion charge already recorded in the second quarter of 2018.
Including the latest charges, PG&E has taken a $14 billion impact to its bottom line related to the Camp Fire and the 2017 California wildfires, the utility said. It also warned that these estimates are on the low end of the possible range.
PG&E’s potential wildfire liabilities could exceed more than $30 billion, the utility said.
Paul Patterson, an analyst who follows PG&E for Glenrock Associates LLC, said major financial questions remain, including exactly what caused the fire, the total amount of liabilities that PG&E will be responsible for paying and how much of those costs the utility will be able to recover from its customers.
“While the information they provided was incrementally useful and interesting, it doesn’t really give you a complete picture as to exactly where the company stands and I don’t think we’re going to know all that for some time,” he said. “It’s not clear to me what the ultimate outcome’s going to be.”
BACKSTORY: During the Camp Fire, a neighbor near the ignition point spoke out about the likely cause. Read what she told Record Searchlight reporter Damon Arthur.
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