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Cal Fire seeks $90 million from utility company for deadly Butte fire sparked by power line

Cal Fire seeks $90 million from utility company for deadly Butte fire sparked by power line
Smoke rises from a fire near Butte Mountain Road near Jackson, Calif., in September 2015. The fire burned 70,868 acres over 22 days. (Andrew Seng / Associated Press)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is seeking $90 million from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. after investigators determined its power line sparked a deadly wildfire in the state's Gold Country last year.

The destructive Butte fire started Sept. 9 when a gray pine came in contact with a PG&E power line conductor near Butte Mountain Road in Amador County, according to a Cal Fire investigation report released Thursday.

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From there, burning embers dropped onto dead brush, sparking an uncontrollable fire that killed two people, injured one and destroyed 965 structures. Both of the people who died — Mark McCloud, 66, and Owen Goldsmith, 82 — were residents of Mountain Ranch and refused to evacuate.

Fire investigators said PG&E and its subcontractors "failed to identify" pines that were exposed to sun and in the path of power lines during an inspection in 2014 and 2015.

"Failing to identify the potential hazard of leaving weaker, inherently unstable trees on the edge of the stand, without conducting maintenance on them, ultimately led to the failure of the Gray pine which contacted the power line operated by PG&E and ignited a wildland fire," incident investigator Gianni Muschetto wrote in the report.

PG&E said it is reviewing the report and has cooperated with Cal Fire during the investigation.

"We are committed to doing the right thing for our customers and will respond in the normal legal process," the utility company said in a statement. "We are going to continue supporting our customers and working with our first responder partners and the State of California to improve fire safety and fire response during this historic drought."

Flames swept through the tiny mining town of 1,600 people last fall, leveling dozens of homes.

The fast-moving blaze spread into Calaveras County and lasted for 22 days. Nearly 5,000 firefighters tackled massive flames until the wildfire was finally contained Oct. 1.

The 70,868-acre fire is the seventh most destructive blaze in California's history, according to Cal Fire.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors announced Thursday that it would pursue legal avenues to seek compensation from PG&E as well as investigation from the California Public Utilities Commission. County officials estimate the wildfire caused more than $1 billion in damage.

"Some residents have left our community and are not rebuilding because of the fire," county Supervisor Cliff Edson said in a statement. "It has not only changed their lives forever, it has changed our community forever."

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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