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Unprepared to Flee

This Nov. 9, 2018, file photo the burned out hulks of cars abandoned by their drivers sit along a road in Paradise, Calif. 

Investigators at the California Public Utilities Commission have faulted PG&E Corp. for failing to inspect and maintain the transmission tower that’s been blamed for sparking the November 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history.

In a 696-page report filed late last week, the PUC’s safety and enforcement division said PG&E’s inspectors failed to notice the worsening condition of the transmission tower, including a “C-hook” that is believed to have caused the fire.

“PG&E failed to inspect the tower and C-hook thoroughly to identify the deterioration,” investigators wrote. They added that PG&E “failed to maintain an effective inspection and maintenance program to identify and correct hazardous conditions on its transmission lines.”

Cal Fire investigators concluded months ago that PG&E’s equipment was responsible for the fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed thousands of homes in the town of Paradise. The PUC report spells out in greater detail PG&E’s lapses in maintaining the high-voltage transmission facilities in the forested area north of Paradise, where the fire started.

A broken C-hook, a piece of equipment that was supposed to keep the wires separate from the tower, was identified months ago as the focus of the Camp Fire investigation. The break likely allowed a jumper cable to brush against the tower, creating sparks that showered the dry ground below.

Among other things, PG&E inspectors hadn’t performed a detailed “climbing inspection” of the tower since 2001 despite signs of “visible wear” on the equipment, the PUC investigators wrote.

“This omission is a violation of PG&E’s own policy requiring climbing inspection on towers where recurring problems exist,” the investigators wrote.

“A climbing inspection of the Incident Tower during that time could have identified the worn C-hook before it failed, and ... its timely replacement could have prevented ignition of the Camp Fire.”

The PUC investigators’ findings were first reported by NBC Bay Area.

Billions in damages from the Camp Fire and the October 2017 wine country fires drove PG&E into bankruptcy in January, creating a massive fight for control of the battered utility.

The utility, in a statement Tuesday, said: “We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy, and we apologize to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire.” It noted that it has ramped up inspections of its wires, substations and other equipment in the past year.

“We climbed them, we used drones and we performed 18 months of inspections in only 4 months,” the company said.

In June PG&E disclosed that its accelerated inspection program found hundreds of “immediate safety risk” problems on its towers and other equipment.

It said it has fixed the problems and also permanently mothballed the so-called Caribou Palermo transmission line — the line where the Camp Fire ignited.

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