(Dec. 10, 2018) A Camp Fire lawsuit filed Dec. 6 alleges that PG&E equipment caused the tragic blaze. The suit says a jumper cable and tower failure caused the fire which killed 85 people, severely burned 11o others, displaced more than 150,000 residents, and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, including most of the town of Paradise. Some 150,000 total acres of land were burned in the tragic blaze, the worst fire disaster in California’s history.
PG&E has been named as the principal defendant in several lawsuits filed thus far – including a recent Butte County filing – though Cal Fire has yet to draw any definite causation conclusion(s). The Sacramento Bee reported that a lawsuit filed last Friday attempts to better pinpoint the fire’s cause. It focuses on a jumper cable that attorneys say came into contact with a steel tower and ignited the blaze.
Filed on behalf of 34 plaintiffs, the lawsuit petition says an extension arm that jutted from the tower was supposed to have kept the electrified jumper cable from making contact with the tower itself. The lawsuit claims that that extension failed, which caused the cable to contact the tower and trigger the catastrophe.
The petition reads: “Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp Fire.”
PG&E disclosed Problem before Blaze Began
A day after the fire destroyed most of Paradise, PG&E disclosed to the Public Utilities Commission that a 115-kilovolt line experienced a problem in the vicinity of where the Camp Fire was reported, about 15 minutes before the blaze began. But PG&E offered no specifics about the problem.
Cal Fire allowed private investigators to inspect the tower, which is located in a remote area called Pulga, some 10 miles northeast of Paradise. But Cal Fire and PG&E crews had partially disassembled the tower before the inspection. They had removed sections of the jumper cable and the tower extension, taking that part into custody.
NBC Bay Area said it was unclear what caused the cable to contact the tower. Unidentified sources said a steel hook mounted on the extension may have failed, allowing the jumper line to come free and contact the tower.
The lawsuit faults “PG&E’s failure to properly inspect and maintain the tower.” An attorney for the 34 plaintiffs said that PG&E does not use insulated lines between its transmission towers because of expense and weight. He said insulated lines would have prevented the Camp Fire tragedy.
PG&E’s aging infrastructure is believed by many fire experts to be a central cause of the Camp Fire blaze. In 2012, several PG&E transmission towers collapsed for reasons that are still uncertain, though their age is suspected as a probable cause. The tower being investigated in the Camp Fire tragedy is believed to be at least 80 years old, and perhaps as old as 100.
PG&E was fined $8.3 million in 2017 by the PUC for failing to properly maintain a12-kilovolt electrical line blamed for igniting the Butte Fire which killed two people and burned 921 homes and other buildings in Amador County in 2015. PUC said an electrical line contacted a44-foot-tall pine tree that should have been identified by PG&E as hazardous and trimmed or removed.
PG&E linked to 2017 Wine Country Fires
PG&E faces billions in claims from the wine country fires which killed 44 people in October 2017. Cal Fire cited PG&E equipment problems for 16 of the wine country fires. It has not yet assigned a cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the deadliest of the 2017 fires.
PG&E’s “reclosers” continue to garner scrutiny from utility safety regulators. Reclosers are designed to remotely re-energize power lines after service disruptions, but their safety is in doubt. Reclosers reportedly contributed to the 2017 Witch Fire in San Diego, but it remains uncertain whether they played a role in the 2017 wine country fires or the 2018 Camp Fire. PG&Ehas acknowledge problems with reclosers, stating publicly a company pledge to expand“our practice of disabling line reclosers and circuit breakers in high fire-risk areas during fire season.”
That pledge was part of a wide-ranging plan begun this year to improve fire safety. Other measures included deliberate blackouts when conditions turn dry and winds dangerous. PG&E did shut off power to 60,000 customers earlier in 2018 as a safety measure, but just canceled a second planned shutdown across portions of northern California that included Butte County just before the fire ignited.
Tree Trimming Problems
Another lawsuit just filed in Butte County also focuses on PG&E’s tree-trimming practices, or its alleged failure to trim potentially dangerous trees and shrubs. PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanor counts of criminal negligence in 1997 for failure to trim trees in Nevada County,which suffered the Traunter Fire as a result of that failure.