During a tour of land devastated by the Butte fire that swept across Amador and Calaveras counties in September 2015, Bob Garamendi points out the sites where his friends and neighbors' ranches once stood. He hopes better collaboration with local and state officials will lead to better preparation for the next fire. Linda S. Zhang The Modesto Bee
During a tour of land devastated by the Butte fire that swept across Amador and Calaveras counties in September 2015, Bob Garamendi points out the sites where his friends and neighbors' ranches once stood. He hopes better collaboration with local and state officials will lead to better preparation for the next fire. Linda S. Zhang The Modesto Bee

Fires

Cal Fire blames PG&E for Butte Fire, will seek $90 million

By Brad Branan

bbranan@sacbee.com

April 28, 2016 02:05 PM

UPDATED April 29, 2016 06:27 AM

A Cal Fire investigation has found Pacific Gas and Electric Co. responsible for the 2015 Butte Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in state history.

The investigation released Thursday determined that the fire was sparked by a PG&E power line that came into contact with a tree, resulting in a wildfire that spread to more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and burned more than 900 structures. The Butte Fire was the seventh-largest in state history.

Poor tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line and starting the fire near Jackson, according to the 30-page Cal Fire investigative report.

PG&E released a statement Thursday saying, “We are reviewing Cal Fire’s report in its entirety. As we’ve said since Sept. 16, we cooperated fully with Cal Fire in its investigation on the source of the ignition for the Butte Fire. We are committed to doing the right thing for our customers and will respond in the normal legal process.”

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The finding has led the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Calaveras County to seek damages against PG&E. Cal Fire will seek more than $90 million in firefighting costs from the utility, according to a news release from the agency.

The Cal Fire report found violations of two public resource laws and two health and safety codes.

Calaveras County supervisors say they will seek “hundreds of millions in compensation” from PG&E for the fire, estimated to have caused more than $1 billion in damage in that county.

The county expects to file a civil lawsuit in Superior Court, seeking to recover the county’s costs of responding to the fire, cleanup efforts, and losses of public property, county officials said.

“We are shocked and dismayed by the extent of PG&E’s negligence and will actively seek justice for Calaveras County and its citizens,” said Cliff Edson, chair of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.

The county will also ask the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E’s role in the fire, much like the agency did following the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, said county counsel Megan Stedtfeld. The San Bruno blast killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood, leading the commission to order the utility to make $1.5 billion in payments to the state and customers and for safety improvements.

The utility has already begun making payments to fire victims without insurance, according to a news release from Calaveras County.

The county’s legal action seeks to recover losses only to public property and resources, Edson said. Individuals seeking loss recovery must seek other means, and several people have already filed lawsuits against PG&E for the fire.

“Calaveras County was devastated by the Butte Fire,” said Edson, who added that nearly all of the structures lost were in Calaveras County.

The Cal Fire report was completed by Gianni Muschetto, a battalion chief in the agency’s Camino office. He was called to investigate the fire not long after it started and eventually found a fallen tree that had burned next to a power line and did not see anything else that could have caused it to burn, according to his report.

Using aerial photographs, Muschetto could tell that PG&E had removed trees in the area before the fire, according to his report. A stand of trees surrounding the one that burned was removed. That was poor tree maintenance because it left the remaining tree “exposed to open space” and “prone to failure,” Muschetto concluded after having an arborist review the evidence.

The report found violations of two public resource laws and two health and safety codes, including one that says a fire caused by a failure to correct a hazard makes the party responsible for the costs of suppressing the fire.

The fire spread over the course of 22 days, compounded by the drought, triple-digit temperatures and steep terrain.

“At its peak, nearly 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze. Resources included 519 fire engines, 18 helicopters, 8 airtankers, 92 hand crews, 115 bulldozers, and 60 water tenders,” according to Cal Fire.

Ranchers tour Butte fire site, consider future preparation

During a tour of land devastated by the Butte fire that swept across Amador and Calaveras counties in September 2015, Bob Garamendi points out the sites where his friends and neighbors' ranches once stood. He hopes better collaboration with local and state officials will lead to better preparation for the next fire.

Linda S. Zhang The Modesto Bee