SAN FRANCISCO — In a reversal of the company's previous statements, a PG&E vice president said on-camera that a PG&E power line started the 2019 Kincade Fire, which injured four people and destroyed hundreds of homes in Sonoma County.
"We understand at a high level that our equipment was responsible for that fire," PG&E vice president for wildfire safety Aaron Johnson said.
Johnson made the remark Tuesday during a workshop on wildfire safety blackouts hosted by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E.
The Kincade Fire burned in the middle of widespread planned blackouts to millions of people in PG&E's service area. The blackouts were intended to prevent wildfires from sparking, but the PG&E transmission line in question was not switched off.
In July 2020, Cal Fire released a statement saying PG&E lines started the fire.
"It's in such stark contrast to what they've been saying over and over again about how this wasn't their fault and how they weren't going to take accountability," said 2017 wildfire victims Will Abrams, whose question prompted Aaron Johnson to say the company's involvement in sparking the fire.
Abrams has been pressing PG&E to state how its equipment sparked the Kincade Fire and what lessons it learned.
"That information is critical because if we don't have the information from past mistakes, we are destined to repeat them with future wildfires," Abrams said.
PG&E could not point to any past statements that disclosed to investors that the company knew its equipment did, in fact, spark the Kincade Fire.
PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman pointed to a 2020 quarterly report that stopped short of admitting that the company's power line was the cause, but did warn investors it was "probable" that PG&E "will incur a loss in connection with the 2019 Kincade fire" due to California laws that hold utilities liable for wildfire damage caused by their equipment.
Nauman did not answer when asked when exactly PG&E knew its equipment was responsible for sparking the Kincade Fire, nor would he clarify why the company did not share that knowledge with investors.
Aaron Johnson's mention of PG&E's responsibility was "consistent with the numerous filings we’ve made over the past eight months since Cal Fire issued a determination of cause" for the Kincade Fire, Nauman said.
But when Cal Fire investigators determined in July that PG&E's power line was the cause, a PG&E press release did not say those investigators were correct.
"At this time, we do not have access to Cal Fire’s investigative report or the evidence it has collected," PG&E said in its press release at the time. "We look forward to reviewing both at the appropriate time."
Cal Fire declined to provide ABC10 a copy of its full report.
Prior to Cal Fire's finding, PG&E and its executives repeatedly denied responsibility for sparking the Kincade fire or knowing enough information to say for sure.
During February 2020 hearings on PG&E's bankruptcy plan, then-CEO Bill Johnson (no relation to VP Aaron Johnson) cast doubt that the company's power line was involved at all.
"If this was a very clear situation, we would know by now who started that fire," Bill Johnson said. "I just don't think that the fact that we had had fires in the past that were related to our equipment would somehow make it smart for us to admit to things that we didn't do."
Without directly denying PG&E sparked the Kincade Fire, Bill Johnson then went a step further to cast doubt on the idea.
"One of the funny things I saw during the fire season that we were blamed for the Getty Fire in Los Angeles, so I don't think we should admit to these things that can't possibly be true," Bill Johnson said.
PG&E continued to deny responsibility for the Kincade Fire to the federal judge handling the company's criminal probation.
"PG&E... denies the allegation that it caused the 2019 Kincade Fire," the company's lawyers wrote. "The Kincade Fire remains under investigation and, to PG&E’s knowledge, causation has not been determined by the grand jury or any other agency."
That claim was made on July 1, 2020, only a couple of weeks after PG&E pleaded guilty to the felony manslaughter of 84 people in the Camp Fire.
Cal Fire named PG&E's transmission line as the cause of the Kincade Fire two weeks later.
NOTE: This story is a part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could help reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at firstname.lastname@example.org.