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Calif. wine country ablaze, investigation 'absolutely looking into power lines'

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Calif. wine country ablaze, investigation 'absolutely looking into power lines'

As some of the worst and deadliest wildfires in California history continue to burn out of control throughout the state's wine country, investigators are trying to discover what set Sonoma, Napa and neighboring counties ablaze on the parched, blustery night of Oct. 8. One potential culprit on state fire investigators' short list: power lines and other electrical equipment owned by PG&E Corp. subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

"All the fires are being actively investigated. We haven't released any of the causes yet, but our investigators are absolutely looking into power lines," Amy Head, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in an interview. "Often [utility infrastructure] can be a common cause of the higher wind-event fires." Four of the 20 most damaging wildfires in state history, based on total structures destroyed, were found to be caused by power lines. "But it's too early to know for sure what caused these [current] fires," Head said.

SNL Image

Napa County firefighter Jason Sheumann battles flames from a wildfire ravaging California wine country.

Source: Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli

As of late Oct. 11, the death toll from the Northern California fires had climbed to nearly two dozen, with hundreds of people still missing and thousands of homes and buildings destroyed, Head said. "We have almost no containment" on the Napa and Sonoma fires, she added, several of which are threatening to merge amid an ominous weather forecast for more dry, windy conditions. "We have some big, big challenges ahead of us." Across Northern California, firefighters are battling around 20 active fires that have scorched roughly 190,000 acres.

Confirmation that Cal Fire is exploring the potential role of PG&E equipment comes after an Oct. 10 article in The (San Jose) Mercury News detailed its review of emergency radio traffic just as a series of fires ignited in Sonoma County that revealed fire crews were deployed to at least 10 separate locations to respond to reports of sparking power lines and exploding transformers blown over in high winds.

PG&E is "working closely with Cal Fire," Jason King, a spokesman for the utility, said, citing "instances where they have identified damaged equipment." While the question of causality remains undetermined, PG&E believes it could not have done more to prevent fire in the region. "We work year-round to reduce the risk of wildfires fueled by five years of drought," King said. In addition to drought, California is dealing with a devastating beetle infestation that has triggered a widespread tree die-off across the state, he added. The utility "constantly" monitors vegetation around its power lines and follows "all state and federal vegetation clearance distance requirements."

Earlier this year, however, PG&E was fined for failing to comply with clearance rules in a 2015 fire. The California Public Utilities Commission in April fined PG&E $8.3 million for its part in the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties. The utility failed to safely maintain overhead conductors, failed to report the possible role of its equipment in the fire in a timely manner and also failed to maintain minimum clearance requirements, the regulator said.

"CPUC staff are in contact with Cal Fire about the current fires throughout the state and are coordinating on response," Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the regulator, said in an email. The PUC conducts annual audits and inspections to ensure utilities are in compliance with clearance rules, she added, which vary depending on voltages and locations.

Prosper did not respond to the question of whether California, given its vulnerability to wildfire and the historic role of power lines, should seek to place more of the distribution system underground. In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a measure lawmakers approved, Senate Bill 1463, that would have required the PUC's fire mitigation efforts "to prioritize areas in which communities are subject to conditions that increase fire hazards associated with overhead utility facilities," and to develop "enhanced mitigation measures," such as placing distribution lines underground.