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Official Report Blames PG&E Equipment for Many Wine Country Wildfires

Cal Fire now links 16 of 170 fires to the utility

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Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage California Wine Country Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

12 of the more than 170 related fires that devastated Northern California last October were caused by “electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles” according to a Cal Fire report issued on Friday. A previous report from May revealed four other fires had been similarly caused by trees contacting power lines. The reports could expose, PG&E the state’s largest utility which is responsible for the majority of the power lines in question, to billions in damages according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The new report accounts for major fires like the Atlas fire, but doesn’t yet include information as to the deadliest blaze, the Tubbs Fire. That fire, PG&E claims, was started by a private homeowner. Still, for eight of the 12 fires in the latest Cal Fire report and for three of the four in the previous one, the agency has referred its findings to district attorneys for review “due to evidence of alleged violations of state law.”

Cal Fire arrived at its determinations after reviewing analysis from experts in fields like trees and arson. In the process, officials such as fire captain Eric Bettger eliminated possible causes one by one including lightning, fireworks, campfires by inspecting the sites of origin for fires and poring over hundreds of pictures of each site.

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E in the case of the Northern California fires, which killed 45 people and destroyed 8,880 buildings. $10 billion in insurance claims related to the fires have been filed.

PG&E has maintained that its programs for trimming trees near power lines and inspecting its poles meet or go beyond safety laws. “We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire reports to understand the agency’s perspectives,” reads a statement from the company. “Based on the information we have so far, we continue to believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards.”

But even if PG&E is found to have violated no regulations with its equipment, under a legal doctrine called inverse condemnation, the utility could still be held liable for losses sparked by its equipment. For its part, PG&E says it’s committed to reforming inverse condemnation laws in California, as the doctrine “undermines the financial health of the state’s utilities [and] discourages investment in California.”

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