The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), in a statement on Tuesday, concluded that power lines belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) started the Dixie fire.
CAL FIRE, “after a meticulous and thorough investigation,” determined that the Dixie fire was caused by a tree contacting PG&E electrical distribution lines west of Cresta Dam, according to the statement. CAL FIRE’s investigative report on the Dixie fire, according to the statement, has been forwarded to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.
The Butte County District Attorney’s Office is partnering with the district attorneys from Lassen, Plumas, Tehama and Shasta counties in a criminal investigation.
The Dixie fire started on July 13, 2021, burned 963,309 acres of land in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties, destroyed 1,329 structures and damaged 95 additional structures. It was the largest non-complex wildfire in California history, the second-largest overall fire in California history, and the first fire known to burn across the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Multiple small towns were damaged or destroyed by the fire, including Canyondam and Greenville, a historic town dating back to the Gold Rush. The fire’s smoke was found as far east as Utah and Colorado.
PG&E was first made aware there was a problem in the area at around 7 AM on July 13, 2021 when they received an indication that power was lost at Cresta Dam. PG&E sent a troubleman to check on the problem, who didn’t arrive until around 4:40 PM due to difficult terrain and roadwork. Another factor leading to the delay in the troubleman’s arrival was PG&E failing to assign a high priority ticket to the Cresta Dam outage.
The troubleman, upon his arrival, according to an electrical incident report which PG&E sent to state utility regulators, found two blown fuses, a tree that was leaning into PG&E’s power lines, and a ground fire below the tree.
The troubleman told a PG&E dispatcher “there’s a tree on a line that started a fire… it fell, fell into the line,” according to ABC 10.
State utilities are required to report incidents like this to state regulators within 2-4 hours, but PG&E acknowledged waiting five days to report it.
PG&E, in a Tuesday statement, stated that the tree “was one of more than 8 million trees within strike distance to PG&E lines.” The utility also committed to burying over 10,000 miles of power lines.
PG&E, in a December 13, 2021 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, estimated that it will suffer $1.15 billion in losses in connection with the Dixie fire, adding that this estimate “corresponds to the lower end of the range” of their “reasonably estimable range of losses.” The filing noted that, as of October 27, 2021, the utility was aware of around 10 Dixie fire-related lawsuits on behalf of at least 676 plaintiffs, adding that PG&E expects that more lawsuits may be filed.
The lawsuits seek to recover damages from PG&E based on multiple counts of action, including inverse condemnation, negligence, violations of the Health & Safety Code and violations of the Public Utilities Code. California courts have previously found that utilities, under the concept of inverse condemnation, are financially liable for any private property destroyed by fires that they are responsible for starting.
PG&E sought bankruptcy protection in January 2019 after amassing $30 billion in liability from wildfires that its equipment started.
The Dixie fire is the latest in a string of fires that PG&E has been found responsible for.
The Camp fire burned 153,336 acres of land in Butte County in November 2018, destroying 18,804 buildings, killing 85 people and causing 52,000 people to be evacuated. The fire almost completely destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, and was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California. The fire was found to have been ignited by a faulty PG&E electric transmission line, and investigators believe a key cause of the fire was the failure of a poorly maintained steel hook that held up a high voltage line.
The Butte County District Attorney’s Office brought criminal charges against PG&E after the Camp fire, and PG&E ended up pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and a single felony count of illegally setting a fire.
The Kincade fire burned 77,758 acres of land in Sonoma County in October and November 2019, destroying 374 buildings. The fire started because of the failure of a 230,000 volt PG&E power line.
PG&E was fined $125 million by the California Public Utilities Commission for its role in starting the Kincade fire.