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Calif. utilities report line problems near times and places wildfires started

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. both reported problems with power lines minutes before major fires started in their service territories in Northern and Southern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, a PG&E Corp. subsidiary, told utility regulators that it had an outage on its 115-kV Caribou-Palermo transmission line at 6:15 a.m. on Nov. 8 in Butte County, Calif., in the area of the Camp Fire, which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, or CAL FIRE, said started 18 minutes later. That afternoon PG&E said its aerial patrol saw damage to a transmission tower on the line about a mile northeast of Pulga, Calif., a small community a few miles northeast of Paradise, Calif. Paradise was destroyed in the blaze, which CAL FIRE reported has killed at least 42 people.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, Edison International subsidiary SoCalEd told the state Public Utilities Commission electric current was interrupted when a relay occurred at its Big Rock 16-kV circuit out of the Chatsworth substation at 2:22 p.m. on Nov. 8, about two minutes before CAL FIRE reported the Woolsey Fire started in Ventura County, Calif.

CAL FIRE said the causes of both fires are under investigation, and both utilities said likewise that there has been no determination of the origin or cause of either wildfire.

"The information provided in this report is preliminary and PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations," PG&E spokesman Jason King said in a Nov. 13 email. "The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined."

SNL Image

Firefighter battles Camp Fire as flames consume
a home in Magalia, Calif., on Nov. 9.
Source: Associated Press

SoCalEd spokesman Paul Netter said Nov. 13 the cause of the Woolsey Fire has not been determined, either. "There will be an investigation. We don't know how long it will take," he said.

In California, fire victims can seek compensation from a utility through the application of the state's unique "inverse condemnation" doctrine when it is determined that the utility's equipment is the cause of the fire regardless of whether the utility is deemed negligent for failing to completely follow fire prevention measures, such as keeping equipment in repair or clear of foliage.

Both utilities, especially PG&E, are facing the threat of billions of dollars in claims from previous wildfires and the latest blazes over many thousands of acres of their service territories has added to the perception among investors that they are faced with increased financial risk.

"The loss of life and property is staggering," PG&E's King wrote. "Right now, our entire company is focused on supporting first responders and assisting our customers and communities impacted by the Camp Fire."

CAL FIRE reported on Nov. 13 that it had contained 30% of the Camp Fire, which so far has scorched more than 125,000 acres and destroyed nearly 7,000 homes and businesses.

The agency also said it had 35% of the Woolsey fire under control, but 57,000 homes and businesses were still threatened after the fire killed two people, burned more than 96,000 acres and 435 structures.

Neither utility has recovered from precipitous declines in their stock prices that started dropping following the fire reports. In trading on Nov. 13, however, the previous two trading days of steep losses were slowed. PG&E Corp. stock was down 0.79% on the day, to $32.92, in heavy trading. Edison International saw a gain of 3.70% to $55.54 on double average volume.