PARADISE, Calif. -- With the cause of California's deadliest-ever wildfire still officially under investigation, some of the evacuees are already joining a lawsuit against power company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).
Power lines were part of the focus from the earliest moments of the firefight on the morning of Thursday, November 8. The fire started before most people ate breakfast. By dinnertime, the town of Paradise and several smaller communities around it were destroyed.
As of this writing, the number of dead is 63 and likely to rise; 631 people are missing.
One week after the Camp Fire started, here’s what we actually know about issues with power lines in the burn area that day:
The first reports of fire mentioned power lines
The very first crews dispatched to the fire near on the morning of Thursday, November 8 were warned that the fire was burning “vegetation under the high-tension power lines across from Poe Dam,” a hydroelectric dam near Pulga, CA that belongs to PG&E.
Around 6:32 a.m., the dispatcher is heard warning multiple crews of possible downed power lines in the area based on information from the “RP.” That’s the reporting party, the person who called the fire in.
This dispatcher checked with each of the fire crews to confirm that they heard the warning about power lines.
ABC10 reviewed the next half hour of audio and did not hear crews on the ground confirm seeing those downed lines, but they didn’t get very close.
At about 6:44 a.m., the first crews on scene reported that the fire was on the west side of the Feather River (the side closest to Paradise, which is more than five miles away as the crow flies) and that the flames were beneath the high-tension lines.
At that time, the responders said it would be “very difficult” to physically get to the fire and that it was spreading rapidly in winds blowing about 35 miles per hour.
At 6:50 a.m., a firefighter estimated the fire’s size at 10 acres with a “critical rate of spread.”
“It’s going to get into the brush and timber,” he said. “Still working on access.”
A few minutes later, the fire crews are heard calling for mandatory evacuations in the Pulga area and to have the rest of the community to be “ready at a moment’s notice.”
PG&E also reported a problem in that area
PG&E reported to the state public utility commission that it had an outage on a high-voltage line in this same area at 6:15 a.m., which is called the “Caribou-Palermo” transmission line.
This is a transmission line, rated at 115 kV. It’s meant to carry lots of power over long distances.
The power company says it was able to see damage to that line later on the day the fire started.
PG&E is simultaneously pleading with the public for patience while investigators work on announcing the official cause, but also warning its investors that it doesn’t carry enough insurance to cover the damage this fire caused.
“If the Utility’s equipment is determined to be the cause, the Utility could be subject to significant liability in excess of insurance coverage,” the company wrote in an SEC filing, adding that the company’s finances could be in trouble if it’s at fault.
High-tension lines are not part of the fire safety shutdown program
High-tension transmission lines, like the one in question, are not part of the “Public Safety Power Shutoff” program, which has gained a lot of attention this year.
The idea of that program is to shut off power lines during times of bad fire weather to prevent sparking a wildfire.
PG&E got the word out to people in Butte County the day before this fire—telling them to expect outages in the day ahead.
As ABC10 crews drove to the fire, we heard produced radio announcements from PG&E alerting people of that possibility. Some in Paradise say they were warned in-person to expect outages. Many wonder why the outage was never enacted before this fire started.
In the case of the line near Poe Dam, it wouldn’t have mattered. Transmission lines are part of the regional power grid, made of lines held by high towers that generally rise above treetops.
PG&E tells ABC10 that it’s allowed to de-energize this kind of line when requested to do so by responders working on an active emergency, but it doesn’t unilaterally shut them down to prevent fires because of “the potential to impact millions of people and create larger system stability issues for the grid.”
Investigators are looking at other possible start points
CAL FIRE announced that it is investigating a possible second start location in Concow, which is located about halfway between the high-tension power lines and the destroyed town of Paradise—but offered few specifics about this development one week after the fire.
It's unclear whether they believe there were multiple starts around the same time or some other scenario.
This adds some validity to the constant reminder from PG&E officials that “it’s important to remember that the cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined.”
PG&E issued the following statement, Thursday, November 16, about their ongoing investigation:
“Our hearts continue to be with the communities impacted by the Camp Fire. The loss of life and property is staggering. Right now, our primary focus is on supporting the communities and assisting first responders as they work to contain the fire. We are also getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access, so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers.
It’s important to remember that the cause of the fire has not been determined. We will cooperate with any investigations, and support the development of best practices and new policies to help prevent wildfires and protect the public.
We agree with CPUC President Picker’s statement that an essential component of providing safe electrical service is long-term financial stability. Access to affordable capital is critical to carrying out safety measures and meeting California’s bold clean energy goals. Recently passed legislation recognized the importance of financially healthy utilities to California electric customers and implementing it quickly is important to achieve that goal.”
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