Cal Fire determines power lines caused 12 North Bay fires

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High winds, power lines, and trees - a catastrophic combination. 

That's the upshot of a new Cal Fire report detailing how Northern California's firestorm started. 

One hundred seventy fires erupted the evening of October 8, leaving 43 dead, and more than 8,000 structures destroyed.

On Friday, Cal Fire released findings on 12 of the largest fires, including the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County and the Atlas Fire in Napa County.

The investigation into the Tubbs Fire, which ravaged Santa Rosa, is still pending. Across the board, the conclusions are power-related.      

"They knew winds were coming, they knew the force of those winds coming, and the locations of those winds," said attorney Frank Pitre, who represents dozens of fire victims.

Pitre was quick to react to Cal Fire's declaration that the fires were caused by "power and distribution lines, conductors, and  the failure of power poles."

"This is a wholesale indictment," said Pitre, "It's not the nice people in the blue trucks who are the problem, it's the people in charge of risk management." 

The Atlas fire was one example cited in the report. It killed six people and destroyed almost 800 structures.

Investigators found it started in two locations where a tree or tree limbs hit a power line. 

At other fires, overhead equipment broke apart and fell, a power pole snapped, and PG&E re-energized a down line, sparking a fire.    

Eight of the twelve investigations are being forwarded to county District Attorneys as potential criminal cases against the utility for failing to maintain a safe buffer between their system and vegetation, as required by state law.     

"We look forward to the opportunity to review the Cal Fire report," said PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paulo, who was featured on a video clip the company provided to the media in lieu of interviews. 

The embattled utility has made reforms recently, including a protocol for cutting power during high fire hazard conditions. 

"It's clear the growing extreme weather threat has created a new normal that requires new solutions to keep our customers and communities safe," said Paulo.

Cal Fire noted the same power-related causes were cited in four previous fires on the same night, in other counties.  

"There are still fires being investigated from last October, and this is a big job for our investigators," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox. 

Cox did not predict when findings would be released for the Tubbs fire, which burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa and leveled entire neighborhoods.

In the eight months since, flaws in fire planning and emergency notification have been laid bare.    

"I will say October was an overwhelming freak weather phenomenon, an overwhelming number of fires in a short time," said Cox. 

He declined to speculate on what PG&E might have done differently.

"Climate change is not an excuse, it's a scapegoat," said lawyer Pitre, "because PG&E management needs to blame something." 

For the plaintiffs, who lost homes and even loved ones, the findings offer some insight into the earliest moments of the disaster. 

They will also be a springboard to examine PG&E practices and spending, especially on inspections and maintenance.  

The utility has suggested, in other forums, municipalities and first responders bear some blame because water and fire engines were lacking along with notification,evacuation, and vegetation management.   

"This all starts on the front end, prevention," said Pitre. "It's despicable for PG&E to blame others for what it clearly their responsibility." 

Previous Coverage of the North Bay Wild Fires: 

'It looks like Armageddon:' Multiple fires raging in Wine Country