Camp Fire: PG&E Power Lines Treated as Crime Scene

PG&E is also accused of failing to properly inspect and manage its power lines and causing the Camp fire in a lawsuit filed last week.



By Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke

CHICO, CALIFORNIA — A utility accused in a lawsuit of igniting California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire said it contacted a customer about a power line on her property but that sparks were not part of the discussion.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said it had been in touch with Betsy Ann Cowley to inform her about future planned work on a power line that had been shut down.

Cowley has said the utility emailed her last Wednesday, a day before the blaze ignited, about getting access to her property in her tiny private resort town of Pulga to work on lines. Cowley said the utility had told her they had problems with sparks.

“We have not seen anything that includes a discussion with the customer in question about ‘sparks’ and PG&E infrastructure,” PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said in an emailed statement Tuesday evening.

The cause of the fire that killed dozens of people and largely destroyed the town of Paradise is still under investigation, but PG&E has come under scrutiny.

Shares of the utility plunged more than 20 percent in Wednesday trading after it said in a regulatory filing that it could face a significant financial hit if its equipment is found to be the cause of the blaze.

Fire investigators have blamed PG&E equipment for 12 wildfires in Northern California wine country last fall, including two that killed a total of 15 people. It’s also facing dozens of lawsuits stemming from those fires.

People whose homes were destroyed in the recent blaze sued PG&E on Tuesday, accusing it of negligence for failing to properly inspect and manage its power lines and blaming it for the fire.

In a filing to state regulators, the utility said it had detected an outage was recorded on its 115-kilovolt Caribou-Palermo line at 6:15 a.m. Thursday. Cal Fire says the blaze started 14 minutes later in that area. PG&E said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.

The utility says the line Cowley was notified about is Cresta-Rio Oso circuit, which has been out of service since Oct. 4 for scheduled work to replace switches and paint towers.

Doherty said Wednesday there is a third line adjacent to the Caribou-Palermo and Cresta-Rio Oso circuits that also runs through Pulga, and there is one additional transmission line about one mile northwest.

PG&E would not comment on whether there were any potential issues with transmission lines in the area prior to the Camp Fire.

State fire investigators have blocked access to the transmission lines and towers at Pulga, calling the area a crime scene.

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