California agency blames utility for fire; seeks $90m in costs

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) on Thursday, April 28, said it will seek more than $90m in firefighting costs from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) after finding that a deadly fire, near Sacramento, was sparked by a tree that came into contact with a power line.

Investigators were dispatched as part of the initial response to the 22-day Butte Fire on Sept. 9, 2015 and immediately began working to determine the origin and cause of the fire.

The utility said it accepts the cause but says it is not clear that it was to blame for the tree failing. The fire burned for three weeks, killing two people and destroying more than 900 structures, including about 550 homes.

At its peak, nearly 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze. Resources included 519 fire engines, 18 helicopters, 8 air tankers, 92 hand crews, 115 bulldozers, and 60 water tenders, the fire agency said.

The 110-square-mile fire caused an estimated $300m in insured losses and is the seventh-most destructive wildfire in state history. CAL Fire said PG&E and its contractors failed to provide proper maintenance after removing two gray pine trees from a stand in January 2015, exposing a weaker, skinnier interior tree.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors issued a statement saying it would seek “hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation” from the utility. The board said it will also ask the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the company, for an investigation and penalties.

The county said it will “pursue all legal avenues” for compensation for PG&E carelessness.

The PG&E Corp. subsidiary issued a statement.

“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims and the communities who suffered losses as a result of the Butte fire. We are committed to doing the right thing for them and to promptly resolving their claims. We have already begun to address many claims,” the utility said on April 28.

“Based on our preliminary review, we accept the report’s finding that a tree made contact with a power line, but we do not believe it is clear what caused the tree to fail or that vegetation management practices fell short,” PG&E said.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at