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Utility held responsible for fatal California wildfires

11 June 2018

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a media release on June 8 that an additional 12 of the wildfires that overwhelmed Northern California's wine country last October were due to tree branches touching Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power lines. Two weeks previously, Cal Fire said PG&E had been responsible for three of the other wildfires that swept across the region. 

Stock image
Stock image

The fires in which PG&E equipment was found to have played a role included the Atlas fire in Napa County, which led to six fatalities; the Redwood fire in Mendocino County, which caused nine fatalities; and a merged set of fires in Sonoma and Napa counties that led to three fatalities, according to Cal Fire.
While the release did not say explicitly that PG&E was negligent in the fires, it suggested strongly that violations of state fire safety codes were involved by raising the possibility of criminal prosecution in connection with the blazes. California fire codes require power lines to be well maintained and vegetation to be trimmed to a safe distance from the lines.
“Cal Fire’s investigations have been referred to the appropriate county District Attorney’s offices for review in eight of the 12 fires— Sulphur, Blue, Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe, Pocket and Atlas — due to evidence of alleged violations of state law,” the agency said. The counties involved in these instances of prosecutorial referrals are Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Humboldt.
The investigation of the Tubbs fire, which destroyed large portions of the city of Santa Rosa and was the deadliest of the blazes, is not yet complete, Cal Fire said.
The Wine Country fires in October killed 44, burned at least 245,000 acres and caused at least $9.4 billion in insured losses.
The embattled utility has been struggling to restore its reputation and finances since causing a fatal gas explosion in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno in 2010.
PG&E had been lobbying state legislators for relief from financial responsibility for the fires, claiming the deadly 2017 wildfire season was the result of climate change and utilities should not be penalised for circumstances outside their control.
It has told shareholders that its liability could exceed the $800 million in insurance coverage it has for wildfires, and it took the unusual step last December of suspending its $1 billion-a-year shareholder dividends.

The possibility of the utility being assigned responsibility for the fires has caused the company’s stock to plummet in recent months.

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