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PG&E reports damaged equipment, downed line near start of Camp Fire

Power line went down just 15 minutes before beginning of burn

Paradise, California Continues Recovery Efforts From The Devastating Camp Fire
A view of a business that was destroyed by the Camp Fire.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Pacific Gas and Electric [PG&E] officials acknowledged that electrical equipment near the origin of the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County malfunctioned minutes before the state’s deadliest wildfire began.

Meredith E. Allen, PG&E’s senior direct of regulatory relations, sent a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission acknowledging damaged equipment and a downed power line in the area where the fire appears to have started.

According to Allen, on November 8 at 6:15 a.m.—about 15 minutes before the estimated start of the fire—a transmission line in the area “relayed and de-energized.”

Fifteen minutes later, “a PG&E employee observed fire in the vicinity” of a nearby tower.

Flying overhead, PG&E employees noted that some equipment had fallen off of the tower. Most notably, “PG&E observed a broken C-hook.”

Earlier this week, NBC Bay Area reported that it appears the fire started “with the fracturing of a steel hook that holds up the insulators” on just such a tower.

NBC did not cite their source for this claim, and it’s not immediately clear whether the hook in the report is the same one PG&E references here. However, the descriptions in that report and Allen’s letter do correspond.

In a stranger anecdote, Allen writes that, in November, an inspection of damaged poles in the fire area revealed “bullets and bullet holes at the break point” of a downed pole and on other nearby equipment.

Protestors In Bay Area Rally To Hold Utility PG&E Accountable For Camp Fire
Protesters at PG&E headquarters in San Francisco Tuesday.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Note that Cal Fire is still investigating the cause of the Camp Fire. It’s not yet unambiguously clear whether PG&E equipment caused the fire or if the utility is legally liable if it did.

PG&E is already the subject of multiple lawsuits from Butte County residents alleging that the utility’s policies and equipment sparked the deadly blaze.

In related news, outgoing Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told the Associated Press this week that the Butte County burn is a game changer for firefighting efforts.

“What the camp fire has told us very clearly is that first are going to burn unlike they have before,” said Pimlott. “You will have in some cases minutes to notice residents about the potential for a fire spreading and the need for evacuation.”

Pimlott went on to say that the state and California counties should consider barring new home construction in fire-prone areas—even as the state hunkers down to try to build its way out of the housing crisis.

“We’ve got to continue to raise the bar,” said Pimlott.