SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — An investigation has determined the deadly Tubbs Fire that ravaged Santa Rosa in October of 2017 was started by a private electrical system and not by PG&E equipment, according to Cal Fire.
The findings bolster the claim by Pacific Gas and Electric in November that it was not responsible for starting the wildfire which destroyed dozens of homes and virtually annihilated two entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.
“After a very thorough, lengthy investigation — several thousand investigatory hours on this — Cal Fire determined this was not a PG&E caused fire,” said Cal Fire Deputy Director Mike Mohler. “This was traced back to the point of origin that was a private land area that had power on it with no responsibility to the utility.”
However, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the findings will not completely bail out the financially utility.
“As it relates to the issue of the 22 lives lost, the 5600-plus structures that were impacted by the Tubbs Fire PG&E was found not to be liable in that instance,” Newsom said. “That said PG&E was found liable for 17 other fires in 2017.”
Cal Fire said investigators did not identify any violations of state law or public resources code related to the cause of this fire.
The announcement comes as Northern California utility PG&E plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of at least $30 billion in expected damages due to deadly 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires.
Investigators are still looking closely at whether PG&E’s equipment ignited the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California history.
PG&E issued a statement following the Cal Fire announcement that said in part: “The devastating and unprecedented wildfires of 2017 and 2018 have had a profound impact on our customers, employees and communities. Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade.”
“Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims.”
State senator Jerry Hill of San Mateo says the findings call into question whether PG&E needs to file for bankruptcy.
“They can weather this and work through it, provide some funding, a fund of some kind, a trust fund to pay for the victims over a long period of time,” Sen. Hill told KPIX.
The news at the Cal Fire report provided a quick shot in the arm to PG&E’s sagging stock.
At one point in the trading day, it spiked, rising nearly 75 percent. While it closed in positive territory, it was down in after-hours trading.
The Tubbs Fire burned a total of 36,807 acres, destroying 5,636 structures and resulting in 22 fatalities and one firefighter injury. It was one of the most destructive blazes in what Cal Fire referred to in the announcement as the October 2017 Fire Siege.
Coffey Park, a square mile of middle-class homes and friendly neighbors on the northern edge of Santa Rosa, was among the hardest hit areas by the raging wildfire.
Fueled by fierce winds, the flames chewed up hillsides, jumped over a six-lane highway and sent thousands fleeing for their lives. Many had nothing but the clothes they wore, leaving behind all their possessions and a lifetime of mementos.
According to survivors, the fire hit Coffey Park when flaming embers blew across U.S. Highway 101 and ignited the businesses and homes around Hopper Avenue. From there, it jumped from house to house.
By the time the sun came up Monday morning, most of Coffey Park was gone, replaced by a hellscape that looked more like a war zone than a suburban neighborhood.
Houses were reduced to smoking piles of ash, leaving a thick cloud of smoke that burned the eyes and lungs. Orange flames spewed from broken gas lines. Vehicles were melted, their make and model indiscernible. A few were overturned, apparently when their gas tanks exploded and launched them into the air.
Approximately 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia helped battle the wildfire outbreak — the worst in California history.
Neysa Hillman, a Coffey Park homeowner who lost her home and was a part to the lawsuit already filed against PG&E, on Thursday told KPIX 5 she knew the utility might not be found responsible for the Tubbs Fire.
“I didn’t expect anything from them really,” said Hillman. “Honestly, figured they’d get out of it somehow, or they didn’t do it one way or the other.”
Carlos Diaz, another area resident who also lost his home in the Tubbs Fire, said the announcement didn’t affect him.
“Well, to me it doesn’t change anything. Because I’m not suing anybody at this point. I just want get my house rebuilt,” said Diaz.
The two homeowners are in the same situation: working things out with insurance companies and trying to rebuild.
“Yeah, it’s hard to get everything back together so you can get back home. And most everybody here wants…there’s very few people who are not coming back,” said Hillman.
“We still haven’t settled. They still owe me money,” said Diaz. “I don’t know it’s gonna happen. All I want is for my house to be rebuilt. That’s it.”
Cal Fire investigators are dispatched with the initial attack resources to the wildfires in the organization’s jurisdiction and immediately begin working to determine their origin and cause.