Downed PG&E power lines investigated as potential cause for North Bay wildfires

Maya Elbaz/Staff

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CAL FIRE investigators are looking into fallen PG&E power lines as one of a number of potential causes for the recent wildfires that have ravaged the North Bay this week.

The fires, now the deadliest in California history, have burned more than 221,000 acres and destroyed 57,000 structures since they began. Additionally, nearly 272,000 PG&E customers have lost power as a result of the fires, according to PG&E spokesperson David Kligman, although as of Friday morning, 88 percent of those customers have since had their power restored.

“Life safety is our absolute focus right now,” Kligman said. “At this time, we are not going to speculate about any causes of these fires, but we will support the reviews by investigators.”

Despite the speculative nature of the company’s role in the fires, PG&E has nonetheless seen a nearly $6 billion hit to its stock share values this week, according to Bloomberg News. Previously, the Silicon Valley power giant was also found responsible for the 2015 Butte Fire after a pine tree fell into a PG&E power line.

PG&E has been accused of negligent maintenance practices in the past, such as in the wake of a 1994 wildfire in the Sierra foothills. The company reached a $29 million settlement in 1999 after the California Public Utilities Commission accused it of diverting money from its tree-trimming services, necessary by law to keep branches away from power lines.

Among other potential causes being investigated by CAL FIRE are “equipment juice” — when people may have sparked a fire by using powered equipment outdoors — lightning strikes and arson, according to Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for CAL FIRE.

“Power lines sparking fires is definitely something we’re looking into,” Berlant said. “But even if something seems obvious, we have to rule out all other possibilities before we can definitively say this is the cause.”


Contact Jared Brewer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @JaredBBrewer.