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Why PG&E Is At Fault For The 2018 Camp Fire

January 27, 2019 Wildfire Litigation Blog

The liability (fault) case against PG&E for the devastating Camp Fire is the strongest liability case of all of the Northern California Fires that occurred in 2017 and 2018. It is highly likely PG&E will be held legally responsible for the Camp Fire, and here is why.

PG&E Performs a Public Function

Electric utilities like PG&E perform a public function, which is to deliver electric power within their service territories, which are usually exclusive of other utilities. Electric utilities like PG&E are also profit-making companies. California utilities are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission and are guaranteed a profit. PG&E is a publicly traded company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In recent years, it has booked profits in the range of a billion dollars a year.

High Voltage Power Lines Cause Wildfires

PG&E’s service territory is massive, covering about 70,000 miles of northern California, in which it operates 106,000 miles of distribution lines and 18,000 miles of transmission lines. For centuries, high voltage electricity has been known to cause fires. High voltage electricity in the form of lightning is the major source of wildfire in the Rocky Mountains, but not in California. Here, the major cause of fire is humans, and too often the human cause of wildfires has been careless operation of high voltage electric lines.

PG&E Has a Duty to Protect the Public

The law imposes on PG&E a high level of legal duty to protect the public from fire, because high voltage electricity is known to be a cause of fire. Under the common law, PG&E must design, construct, operate and maintain its power lines reasonably under the circumstances, which include wind, wear, and the danger of fire. This law is the law of negligence, which applies to all of us.

The Legislature and the PUC have also made laws specific to electric utilities for the purpose of protecting the public from the dangers of high voltage electricity. Several of those laws are especially applicable to the Camp Fire. For example:

  • “Each electrical corporation shall construct, maintain, and operate its lines and equipment in a manner that will minimize the risk of catastrophic wildfire posed by those electrical lines and equipment.” (Public Utilities Code section 8386(a));
  • A public utility like PG&E must “furnish and maintain such adequate, efficient, just, and reasonable service, instrumentalities, equipment, and facilities … as are necessary to promote the safety, health, comfort, and convenience of its patrons, employees, and the public.” (Public Utilities Code section 451);
  • A public utility like PG&E must design, construct, and maintain its electrical systems “regard being given to the conditions under which they are to be operated, to enable the furnishing of safe, proper, and adequate service.” Design, construction and maintenance of power lines must be done in accordance with “accepted good practice for the given local conditions known at the time.” (PUC General Order 95, Rules 13, 31.1);
  • A public utility must inspect its power lines “frequently and thoroughly for the purpose of insuring they are in good condition.” (PUC General Orders 165 and 95, Rule 31.2); and
  • The much-discussed law of inverse condemnation holds a public utility liable if its lines cause damage when operated as “deliberately designed and constructed.” (Barham v. SCE (1999) 74 Cal. App. 4th 744, 751.)

Evidence Connects a PG&E Tower to the Camp Fire

All of the credible evidence points to PG&E Tower 27/222 as the cause of the Camp Fire. This tower carried the 115,000-volt Caribou-Palermo transmission line, which transmitted electricity generated at Poe Dam, which is in sight of the tower. The tower is located on Camp Creek Road high on the western slope of the Feather River Canyon, through which seasonal high winds blow down through the Jarbo Gap. Canyons accelerate winds, and the tower is located on a particularly prominent knoll exposed to the winds. The National Weather Service had posted a Red flag Warning (high fire danger) for November 8 as well as for 27 days in the preceding month.

According to PG&E records, an outage occurred at the tower at 6:15 a.m. on November 8, 2018. An aerial inspection revealed that an attachment of undetermined age had broken off the tower, causing a 115,000-volt line to fall onto the metal tower, causing a flash mark on the tower. Around 6:30 a.m. A worker across the Feather River saw flames in the vegetation under the transmission lines at that location and called the fire in to the fire service. [CalFire has taken possession of the attachment and support structure for the subject lines].

A visit to the tower makes clear the fire started there. The vegetation is green looking toward Poe Dam. The blackened ground starts right around the tower and heads south west toward Paradise in the direction of the wind.

An attachment of a power line to a tower is not supposed to fail in known wind conditions. A safety factor of two or more is required for electrical hardware. The attachment failed for technical reasons still unknown, probably age and wear, none of which can favor PG&E.

The cause of the Camp Fire is far different from that of the Tubbs Fire, which CalFire recently blamed on a private power line. The line causing the Camp Fire is clearly PG&E’s.

PG&E is suggesting the fire may have started from a downed pole east of Concow Reservoir which had bullet holes. This is PG&E’s pattern, to come up with an alternative explanation, which often falls by the wayside when investigated.  There is no eyewitness to support the theory the fire started at this alternate site, while witnesses all along the fire front report the fire coming from the direction of the tower. PG&E’s alternative explanation does not conform to the wind patterns at the time, and the reservoir stood between this alternate location and Paradise. PG&E is required to frequently inspect its lines. If it did, any significant bullet holes would have been noted and repairs made.

PG&E’s threatened bankruptcy will not change its liability for the Camp Fire. The Camp Fire – the most destructive in the state’s history – will be found to have been caused by PG&E.