Fire officials concluded Wednesday that equipment operated by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. caused the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, increasing pressure on a utility company already facing billions in liability claims.
In a statement, PG&E agreed with their determination, ending months-long speculation into whether they had ignited the fire.
November’s Camp Fire killed 85 people, left several firefighters injured and razed more than 150,000 acres in Northern California. Investigators have determined that it originated from PG&E-controlled electrical transmission lines near the community of Pulga, located nearly 100 miles north of Sacramento. Dry vegetation, strong winds and low humidity strengthened the fire, causing “extreme rates of spread” that ravaged the nearby communities of Concow, Paradise and Magalia.
The fire displaced thousands and took 17 days to put out. At one point the smoke became so hazardous Bay Area residents were told to put on masks before going outdoors. Investigators said a second fire started after vegetation blew into electrical distribution lines owned by PG&E. That blaze was overrun by the fire originating near Pulga.
The San Francisco-based utility company filed for bankruptcy in January, anticipating billions of dollars in liability claims stemming from the fires. The Washington Post reported the area’s already arid forests were made even drier by years of drought, creating instant fuel for damaged transmission lines. The company was ultimately cleared of blame for the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people after tearing through the city of Santa Rosa.
A year later, on Nov. 8, the Camp Fire started burning through Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills some 15 minutes after PG&E employees saw smoke near a utility tower. The timing was reported to state regulators, who were left to determine whether the utility was responsible.
Bankruptcy court filings revealed PG&E faced more than $50 billion in liabilities following the November fire. The company also faced myriad lawsuits, writing at the time it was mired with “extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation.”
“Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims,” the statement read.
California faced 7,571 wildfires in 2018 alone. State officials said Wednesday they’d submitted their report to Mike Ramsey, the Butte County district attorney, for further investigation.
PG&E, which provides power to 16 million people in northern and central California, said in the Wednesday statement it agreed with the fire officials’ conclusion that its transmission lines near Pulga ignited the Camp Fire. The utility said it hadn’t yet confirmed the source of the second fire reportedly caused by vegetation.
“Our hearts go out to those who have lost so much, and we remain focused on supporting them through the recovery and rebuilding process,” the company wrote. “We also want to thank the brave first responders who worked tirelessly to save lives, contain the Camp Fire and protect citizens and communities.”
Taylor Telford, Scott Wilson and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.