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Pacific Gas & Electric equipment is blamed for 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County

The Kincade fire burns in Geyserville, Calif. State fire officials say Pacific Gas & Electric equipment sparked the fire.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric sparked last year’s Kincade fire, which forced thousands of Northern Californians to flee their homes, according to a state fire department investigation.

The fire started Oct. 23, 2019 and burned for nearly two weeks amid dry, gusty winds that pushed the flames west through wine country as much of the region was enduring days of power outages — also caused by PG&E. The utility had resorted to shutting down power to millions of customers on the hottest, windiest days in a bid to avoid sparking blazes but left its more vital transmission lines energized.

In the days after the Kincade fire took off, the utility filed a notice with the watchdog Public Utilities Commission, saying it had issues with transmission equipment near the fire about the time it began. PG&E said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also pointed out a “broken jumper on the same tower.”

But in announcing the conclusion of its investigation Thursday, Cal Fire declined to explain how PG&E’s equipment sparked the fire, which burned 77,758 acres and destroyed 374 buildings.

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“After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, Cal Fire has determined that the Kincade fire was caused by electrical transmission lines” northeast of Geyserville owned and operated by PG&E, the agency said in a statement. “Tinder-dry vegetation and strong winds combined with low humidity and warm temperatures contributed to extreme rates of fire spread.”

Now PG&E is left to fend for itself as a new wildfire season is already underway.

Cal Fire referred further comment to the Sonoma County district attorney’s office. PG&E officials said they learned of Cal Fire’s conclusion after it was announced.

“At this time, we do not have access to Cal Fire’s investigative report or the evidence it has collected. We look forward to reviewing both at the appropriate time,” the utility said.

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Cal Fire’s finding comes just as the utility looks to rebuild its reputation after years of deadly disasters brought on by negligent corporate governance. The company declared bankruptcy after the 2018 Camp fire added billions of dollars in liabilities on top of what it had already accumulated as future losses from fires in 2017.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy July 1 and said in a news release that the day marked “just the beginning of PG&E’s next era — as a fundamentally improved company and the safe, reliable utility that our customers, communities and California deserve.”

PG&E’s then-chief executive pleaded guilty in June on behalf of the utility to 84 criminal counts of manslaughter in connection with the 2018 fire in Paradise, which was caused by failed equipment that had been long overdue to be replaced but wasn’t as part of a profits-over-safety culture. The utility was also found criminally responsible for a 2010 San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people.

Sonoma County prosecutors will review the Kincade fire investigation to consider any possible charges against the utility.


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