Investigators say deadly Tubbs Fire caused by private electrical system, not PG&E

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Electrical equipment on private property north of Calistoga, not PG&E power lines, sparked the 2017 deadly Tubbs Fire, the second most destructive wildfire in California history, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Thursday. 

Cal Fire’s 15-month investigation ended Thursday with the announcement that an electrical problem on rural residential property on Bennett Lane north of Calistoga sparked the fire, which killed 22 people and burned more than 36,000 acres in parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties. The fire destroyed entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods and caused nearly $8 billion in losses in Sonoma County.

Cal fire investigators did not identify any violations of state law linked to the cause of this fire.

Siince  the deadly firestorm that began on Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, Cal Fire has concluded that PG&E power lines and equipment sparked 16 of the 18 fires that broke out across Northern California on those days. But the cause of the Tubbs Fire had not been determined. 

Last month, a court filing by PG&E claimed the Bennett Lane land owner was responsible for causing the Tubbs Fire because work had been done on an electrical system by unlicensed workers. 

It was not immediately clear Thursday if Cal Fire’s findings will have any bearing on lawsuits against PG&E related to the Tubbs Fire or a possible bankruptcy filing linked to other deadly and destructive blazes during the last two wildfire seasons. 

Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said on Thursday that the county's lawsuit seeking compensation for damages from the Tubbs Fire would not be affected. 

"Cal Fire has found PG&E responsible for 17 of 18 fires in the state and seven of eight in Sonoma County," Goldstein said . "The [Tubbs Fire] report is not a judge's conclusion, and we will remain engaged in litigation. If anything puts the lawsuit off track, it would be PG&E's filing for bankruptcy," he said. 

Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller, who represents 1,200 people who are suing PG&E for lost homes and other damages, said Thursday's Cal Fire report "changes nothing."

"The bottom line is the Cal Fire report finds 'an unknown event' as the cause of the fire," Miller said. "The report is wrong. We have witnesses who saw fire down low to the ground where PG&E equipment was," Miller said.

Miller said even if the owner of the private property where Cal Fire says the private equipment started the fire is responsible for the Tubbs Fire, PG&E should have shut off its power as it did in one instance in Calistoga during a period of high fire danger last fall.

PG&E released a statement Thursaday afternoon about Cal Fire's findings on the Tubbs Fire.. 

"Regardless of today’s announcement, PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade,'' according to the statement.

"Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims."