Bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. inched closer to taking responsibility for the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century, saying Thursday it is “probable” that one of its transmission lines sparked the blaze last year that killed 86 people and destroyed most of the city of Paradise.
The embattled utility company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, said it’s taking a $10.5 billion charge for claims connected to the so-called Camp Fire in its fourth quarter earnings. The fire destroyed 14,000 homes in and around Paradise — a city of 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The cause of the fire, the deadliest in California history, is still under investigation. But firefighters located its start near a tower on PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo transmission line.
PG&E has previously acknowledged that that transmission line lost power right before the fire and was later found to be damaged. It also included the blaze among the more than $30 billion in potential wildfire liabilities it said it was facing when it announced plans to file for bankruptcy in January.
“We recognize that more must be done to adapt to and address the increasing threat of wildfires and extreme weather in order to keep our customers and communities safe,” said John Simon, interim CEO of PG&E, in a statement. “We are taking action now on important safety and maintenance measures identified through our accelerated and enhanced safety inspections and will continue to keep our regulators, customers and investors informed of our efforts.”
“I’m surprised that PG&E admits what we already knew,” said Mike Danko, an attorney who represents thousands of Camp Fire victims.
Danko says what stands out for him is that in the report PG&E says it has set aside $10.5 billion for claims from Camp Fire victims.
“If you are a Camp Fire survivor and you thought ‘I guess I am out of luck because PG&E filed bankruptcy,’ well this is saying, no you are not out of luck,” said Danko. “Good news, PG&E has money and it is reserving it just for you.”
What the report doesn’t address is whether negligence played a role in the fire. ]
“If they had been spending the money that ratepayers have been giving them for years and years to do what they are suppose to and keep the lines in repair, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Mark Toney, a representative from the Utility Reform Network.
But Toney with PG&E Watchdog TURN says all signs point that way, which is why a judge overseeing the company’s felony probation in the San Bruno gas pipeline case should change the company’s management.
“The evidence shows PG&E needs new leadership and appointing a receiver is a way to get new leadership immediately,” he said.