Bankrupt Electricity Provider Says It May Have Sparked Latest Northern California Fire

Firefighters battle the wind-driven Saddle Ridge fire in the early morning hours in Porter Ranch, Calif., October 11, 2019. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

California electricity provider Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said on Monday that its equipment may have sparked two fires in the San Fransisco Bay area over the weekend.

The fires destroyed a tennis club and forced the evacuation of Lafayette, a town about 22 miles east of San Fransisco. According to PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January, firefighters believe one fire started after contact between a communication line and a power line belonging to the company.

A PG&E worker found a fallen telephone pole and transformer at the scene of the second fire, and the company is looking into the possibility that the transformer ignited the blaze.

PG&E equipment has been blamed for five of the ten most destructive fires in California since 2015. This includes the Camp Fire of November 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

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Meanwhile, PG&E said on Thursday that a transmission tower in Sonoma County in northern California malfunctioned minutes before a fire broke out in the area that has led to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Kincaid Fire, as it is now known, began around 9:30 p.m. six minutes after a transmission tower malfunctioned near Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road in Sonoma County. The cause of the fire is still officially under investigation.

PG&E has enacted power cuts to 965,000 homes and businesses in California, with 2.5 million people affected, in order to prevent faulty equipment from sparking fires in the state’s dry and windy fall weather. However, while low-voltage power lines were shut off in Sonoma County due to high risk of fire, transmission lines with a higher voltage were left on.

“Those transmission lines were not deenergized because forecast weather conditions, particularly wind speeds, did not trigger the PSPS [Public Safety Power Shutoff] protocol,” the utility said in a statement on Thursday.

Almost 200,000 people have been evacuated from the region in the wake of the fire, which now covers roughly 80 square miles, almost twice the size of the city of San Francisco.

California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke at an evacuation center in the city of Petaluma in Sonoma County on Sunday, promising to address the situation quickly.

“There is a plan to get out of this. This is not the new normal,” Newsom said. “This is not a 10-year process to deal with this. That will not be the case… [PG&E] will be held to account to do something radically different.”

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