For weeks a PG&E transmission tower northeast of Paradise has loomed as a possible culprit in the Camp Fire, triggering a slew of lawsuits and official investigations.
Now a new lawsuit by Camp Fire survivors attempts to pinpoint the cause in the greatest detail yet, focusing on an uninsulated “jumper” cable that lawyers say came into contact with the steel tower and sparked the deadliest blaze in California history.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday on behalf of 34 survivors of the Nov. 8 disaster, says an extension arm jutting from the tower was supposed to have kept the electrified jumper cable from making contact with the tower itself. But somehow the extension failed and the cable touched the tower, leading to catastrophe. The fire has killed 85 people and destroyed much of the town of Paradise.
“Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp Fire,” said the lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court by Bay Area law firms Corey Luzaich de Ghetaldi & Riddle and Danko Meredith.
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Pacific Gas and Electric Co., in a disclosure to the Public Utilities Commission a day after the fire destroyed most of Paradise, said a 115-kilovolt line experienced a problem in the vicinity of where the Camp Fire was reported, about 15 minutes before the blaze started. The utility didn’t offer specifics about the problem.
The report led to a steep decline in parent company PG&E Corp.’s stock price amid speculation that the company, already facing billions in claims from last year’s wine country fires, could be in deep financial distress. The PUC has ordered PG&E to make broad changes in its corporate culture to improve safety procedures.
Dario de Ghetaldi, a partner in the Corey Luzaich firm, said in an interview Friday that his firm’s investigators were allowed to inspect the tower, located in a remote area called Pulga about ten miles northeast of Paradise. They found that Cal Fire and PG&E crews had partially disassembled the tower, removing sections of the jumper cable and the tower extension.
“They took that part of the structure into custody,” de Ghetaldi said.
It’s unclear what caused the cable to come into contact with the tower. NBC Bay Area, quoting unidentified sources, said a steel hook on the extension might have failed, allowing the jumper line to come free and make contact with the tower.
PG&E had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. The agency hasn’t identified a cause of the fire yet.
The lawsuit faults “PG&E’s failure to properly inspect and maintain the tower” and de Ghetaldi said the utility should have insulated the jumper cable. “PG&E does not use insulated lines between the transmission towers because of expense and added weight,” he said in the interview. “If they had used insulated lines this damned fire would have never happened.”
He added, however, that the lack of insulation “is the industry norm.”
The allegations about the Camp Fire follow years of criticism of PG&E’s oversight of its transmission lines and other equipment.
Frank Pitre, of the Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy law firm in Burlingame, said in an interview that several PG&E transmission towers, in the same general area as the suspected tower, fell over in 2012 for reasons that remain unclear. Pitre, whose firm is suing PG&E over the wine country fires and is investigating the Camp Fire, said the 2012 incident is further evidence of problems with its equipment.
“PG&E recognizes they have an aging infrastructure,” he said.
The tower that’s being investigated in the Camp fire “has been out there decades,” he added. “It is 100 years, 90 years? 80 years?”
Last year the utility was fined $8.3 million by the PUC for failing to properly maintain a 12-kilovolt electrical line that was blamed for igniting the Butte Fire, which killed two people and destroyed 921 homes and other buildings in Amador County in 2015. The agency said the electrical line made contact with a 44-foot-tall pine tree — a tree that should have been identified as hazardous.
Separately, PG&E faces billions in claims for the wine country fires, which killed 44 people in October 2017. Cal Fire has cited PG&E equipment problems for 16 of the wine country fires; it has yet to assign a cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the deadliest of the 2017 fires.
PG&E has also come under scrutiny over its use of devices known as “reclosers,” which automatically re-energize power lines after service interruptions, enabling power to be restored from a remote location. PG&E told state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that it shut off some of the reclosers in the vicinity of the wine country fires, but left most of them operating. Reclosers reportedly contributed to the 2007 Witch Fire in San Diego.
It remains unknown if the devices played a role in the wine country fires — or the Camp Fire. But earlier this year, PG&E pledged to expand “our practice of disabling line reclosers and circuit breakers in high fire-risk areas during fire season.”
The pledge was part of a wide-ranging initiative PG&E began this year to improve fire safety, including deliberate blackouts when conditions are dry and winds turn dangerous. The utility did shut power to 60,000 customers earlier this year as a preventive measure, but canceled a second planned shutdown across portions of Northern California, including Butte County, just before the Camp Fire started.
Critics have also accused PG&E of skimping on its tree-trimming program — a charge leveled in numerous lawsuits filed against the utility the past two years. And in 1997 PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanor counts of criminal negligence for failure to trim trees properly, following the Trauner Fire in Nevada County.