Could a power company be responsible for the California wine country fires?

PG&E has been blamed for a wildfire before.
PG&E has been blamed for a wildfire before.
Image: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The cause of the California wine country fires is still under investigation, but a California power utility is emerging as a possible culprit. On the same evening that reports of the wildfires began to crop up in Sonoma County, local fire crews were called to at least 10 different locations along Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines after 911 calls reported sparking wires and and other problems while the area was pummeled by heavy winds.

On Thursday (Oct. 12), California’s Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to preserve all evidence related to the fires, according to the Daily Beast.

By revenue, PG&E is the biggest electric utility company in the US. But company stock plummeted in response to news that it may have a connection to the fire, losing 15% of its value—a $6 billion reduction—over the last week. As of mid-day Monday (Oct. 16) the utility was the worst-performing stock on the S&P 500, dropping by more than 7% that day.

The East Bay Times notes that PG&E has been the subject of investigations like this before; the California Public Utilities Commission fined the company $8.3 million earlier this year for failing to properly cull trees near a power line in Amador County east of Sacramento, causing a 22-day-long fire in September 2015. That event, known as the Butte Fire, began when one of its lines came in contact with a pine tree. The Butte Fire killed two people and destroyed 549 homes.

As the Daily Beast points out, California law requires power lines to be at least 4 ft away from branches, as even a single tree-power line collision could spark a fire. State officials charged PG&E with overlooking dangerous trees in its 2014 and 2015 inspections, leading to the Butte Fire.

A PG&E spokesperson told the East Bay Times that any questions about maintenance of power lines were “highly speculative” but acknowledged that equipment had malfunctioned.

“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said. “These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay.”