SACRAMENTO, California — As of Wednesday, the state of California blames the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for starting fires that killed a total of 107 people in just two years, including the 85 victims who died in last year’s Camp Fire.
Cal Fire announced Wednesday what PG&E told investors it feared: that the Camp Fire was caused by a high-voltage transmission line owned by PG&E near the town of Pulga. It’s the same location where firefighters first saw the flames being pushed quickly up a dry hill by high winds.
In response to the announcement, PG&E issued a written statement that stopped short of offering an apology, saying that the company "accepts" Cal Fire's determination.
ABC10 first confirmed that investigators reached this conclusion about the fire's origin in an interview two weeks ago with Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. He said the company could face charges as serious as 85 counts of manslaughter depending on what the investigation finds about PG&E’s behavior and mindset.
“We are confident as to how the fire started,” Ramsey said. “The ‘why’ is what we’re looking at right now.”
PG&E is already a convicted criminal, currently serving a sentence of probation for six federal felonies connected to the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.
Trying to punish the company into better behavior has proven difficult for state regulators, elected officials, and criminal court judges alike.
The company was recently found in violation of its probation, but the judge was unable to throw anybody behind bars for it because the convictions were against the corporation as a whole and not against any specific people working for it.
“A corporation cannot go to prison,” wrote federal judge William Alsup, who did modify PG&E’s probation to add additional terms for the violation. Committing additional crimes would also violate the probation terms imposed by the federal court.
PG&E previously confirmed that a metal hook appears to have failed on that transmission line and the company pointed out that it said back in February that it "believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire."
Lawyers representing fire victims accuse the company of routinely running its equipment until it fails rather than maintaining and replacing it in a safe manner. PG&E says it is "cooperating with the ongoing investigations into the Camp Fire.”
PG&E, the nation’s largest electric company by the total number of customers, is currently under chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company filed for bankruptcy as an effort to negotiate a plan to pay out tens of billions of dollars in damages to the masses of people who lost homes and loved ones in fires started by PG&E in 2017 and 2018.
Cal Fire’s announcement revealed scant new details but did confirm that a second fire was started that same morning by a smaller distribution line also owned by PG&E in the small community of Concow.
This second fire was “consumed by the original fire,” according to the agency’s press release.
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