With new expert opinions and recently discovered photos, the case is clear(er): PG&E’s power lines sparked the Tubbs Fire.
As SFist reported back in July, the Tubbs Fire of 2017 was originally thought by inspectors to be the only large Wine Country wildfire that year not caused by PG&E-owned equipment... but newly unearthed surveillance footage suggests that Cal Fire investigators may have been mistaken. And now as NBC Bay Area reports there’s even more evidence mounting to prove PG&E may have been at fault for the cataclysmic NorCal blaze.
Two new pieces of photographic evidence — which were obtained by NBC Bay Area’s investigative unit — show “tree contact” with two PG&E power lines which, according to one expert, perfectly match the fire’s ignition location and timeline.
“This is where the fire started,” says electrical engineer Ken Buske, who has studied the causes of a thousand fires over forty years. It was first believed that a privately owned, substandard electrical system along Bennett Lane was the cause of the fire, per a January 2018 report by Cal Fire.
Buske also saw the released surveillance footage, as well, adding: “There’s a bright flash, an electric [arc]... like lightning between the portion of the wire, the top wire, and some vegetation, and there’s a similar event with the other wire.”
“The [initial Cal Fire] report is wrong,” Buske concludes.
The victims of the Tubbs Fire are moving forward to prove that PG&E is, in fact, responsible for the 2017 blaze that killed 22 and destroyed some 6,000 structures.
“We’re going to be able to establish that [the formation of an electrical arc], I believe, was the cause of the fire," said attorney Steve Campora, who represents Tubbs Fire victims, to ABC 10. “When a branch comes across both lines, it closes that circuit, so you have 12,000 volts that’s basically escaping, coming out of the system, and it causes, essentially, a lightning flash.”
Regardless of these new findings, PG&E and it army of attorneys are adamant that they had no part in it. Per CNBC earlier in the year, a company spokesperson stated: "Cal Fire has completed its investigation of the 2017 Tubbs Fire and concluded that PG&E facilities did not cause the fire.”
(It's still unclear if Cal Fire will amend their initial report, based on these new findings.)
Furthermore, this proportionally small number of Tubbs Fire victims legally pressuring PG&E could “unfreeze" prosecutions against the utility company; PG&E declared bankruptcy in January of this year, which “froze” all pending litigation against the company.
The civil trial against PG&E will start on January 7, 2020 in SF Superior Court to decide what, if any, role PG&E played in the Tubbs Fire, and if the victims are entitled to legal compensation from the utility.
Photo: Courtesy of Flickr, via The National Guard