Report: Downed power lines sparked deadly California fires

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2017 file photo, a firefighter carries a water hose to put out a fire burning along the Highway 29 near Calistoga, Calif. Downed power lines caused a dozen Northern California wildfires last fall, including two that killed a total of 15 people, California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Friday, June 8, 2018. The wildfires were part of a series that were the deadliest in California history. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) CAJC106
FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2017 file photo, a firefighter carries a water hose to put out a fire burning along the Highway 29 near Calistoga, Calif. Downed power lines caused a dozen Northern California wildfires last fall, including two that killed a total of 15 people, California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Friday, June 8, 2018. The wildfires were part of a series that were the deadliest in California history. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) CAJC106
Published June 8 2018
Updated June 9 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — A dozen wildfires that burned thousands of homes in California’s wine country and killed at least 15 people last October were started by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines and utility poles, state fire officials said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released its investigation Friday for some of the wind-driven fires that ravaged Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties.

Falling trees and tree limbs hitting power lines were the most common cause, but one fire erupted after PG&E tried to re-energize a downed line, investigators found.

In eight fires there was "evidence of alleged violations of state law" by the utility and those cases have been referred to county prosecutors for review, according to the forestry department.

"PG&E has been trying to duck responsibility for the fires, blaming everything from climate change to local fire departments and the state’s liability laws," Patrick McCallum, co-chair of a coalition of people affected by the wildfires, said in a statement.

He said Cal Fire’s report "puts the blame where it belongs — squarely on PG&E, confirming it was responsible for many of the fires that devastated so many lives."

"As victims, we see the report as an important step toward rebuilding and recovery," McCallum said.

The dozen blazes were part of the deadliest series of wildfires in California history, which killed 44 people, destroyed 8,800 structures and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate. About 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia helped battle the blazes.

Nearly $1.5 billion was spent fighting fires and on recovery north of San Francisco in October, including debris removal and infrastructure repair

The destruction prompted $10 billion in insurance claims.

Hundreds of homeowners and relatives of those killed have sued PG&E, which has sought to raise rates to cover possible judgments.

PG&E said in a statement that the company believes its "overall programs met our state’s high standards" for maintaining electrical equipment. The utility said it inspects its 2 million power poles regularly and prunes about 1.4 million trees a year.

But "years of drought, extreme heat and 129 million dead trees have created a ‘new normal’ for our state" that has increased the number of large wildfires and the length of the wildfire season, the utility said.

"Climate change and the so-called new normal do not ignite fires. The Cal Fire findings today show that suspected negligence by PG&E did," said state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Redwood City Democrat and a longtime critic of the utility.

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