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PG&E not to blame for 2017 Santa Rosa fire, says state report

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Private equipment in Calistoga most likely culprit

CalFire firefighter Brandon Tolp uses a drip torch during a firing operation while battling the Tubbs Fire.
CalFire firefighter Brandon Tolp during battling the Tubbs Fire.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After more than 14 months of investigation Cal Fire issued its final report on the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the second-most destructive blaze in California history, determining that Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is not liable for the disaster.

“The Tubbs Fire, which occurred during the October 2017 fire siege, was caused by a private electrical system adjacent to a residential structure,” according to a statement from the state-run fire agency. “Cal Fire investigators did not identify any violations of state law [...] related to the cause of this fire.”

Notably, PG&E previously argued in court filings that this private power setup was the cause of the wildfire, although PG&E equipment was found near the likely fire origin point too.

According to the redacted final report by Cal Fire Battalion Chief John Martinez et al, “Investigation eliminated [all] causes for the Tubbs fire with the exception of an electrical fire originating from an unknown event affecting privately owned conductor or equipment.”

Martinez and fellow investigators narrowed the origin of the fire down to a house on Bennett Lane in Calistoga based on “cell phone video footage from an unknown witness.”

Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage California Wine Country
A downed power line and the remains of a home and a car following the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017.
Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

While the fire’s ignition point was “in the vicinity of” potentially suspect PG&E equipment, Cal Fire determined that there was “no evidence the system was energized” at the time the blaze began.

According to an internal Cal Fire report by electrical engineering firm JH Nolt and Associates, “The combination of physical evidence, data, witness statements, video, etc, do not confirm that PG&E equipment was the source of ignition.”

While the findings do not completely dispel the outside possibility that the San Francisco-based utility caused the Sonoma County blaze that killed 22 and destroyed more than 5,600 buildings, Martinez concludes that “it is unlikely PG&E equipment is responsible.”

That’s good news for the otherwise battered California power purveyor, which is bankrupt, minus a CEO, on criminal probation, and considering selling its downtown San Francisco headquarters.

Cal Fire has previously concluded that PG&E did start 18 other, less destructive wildfires in 2017. The state continues to investigate whether or not PG&E might be responsible for a more recent Butte County fire, the deadliest and most destructive conflagration in state history, which killed 86 people in 2018.