Privately owned electrical equipment at a house near Calistoga sparked the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which grew to be the most destructive fire the state had ever seen to that point, Cal Fire said Thursday.
Cal Fire “investigators did not identify any violations of state law, Public Resources Code, related to the cause of this fire,” the agency said in a news release Thursday.
The fire broke out on the evening of Oct. 8, around the same time as a number of other blazes across Northern California, which was experiencing unusually hot and dry weather at the time. Investigators have blamed PG&E for most of the other blazes that broke out that night, but Cal Fire had been silent on the Tubbs Fire until now.
The Tubbs Fire burned more than 36,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties. It destroyed 5,636 structures, 4,651 of which were homes, and killed 22 people and injured one firefighter. Several days after the fire’s start, the entire town of Calistoga was evacuated as the fire changed course.
Eleven Cal Fire officials interviewed more than 40 witnesses and spent more than a year investigating the fire.
In an 80-page, redacted investigative report released Thursday, Battalion Chief John Martinez said an “unknown event” affected privately owned electrical equipment at a property on Bennett Lane that sparked the fire. The conclusion was based on an examination of the fire damage and extensive interviews with neighbors and firefighters first on the scene.
The exact address and name of the landowner were blacked out in the report released to the public. The report did note, however, that the entrance to the property was off of a paved Bennett Lane driveway “identified by an address marker labeled ‘1128.’”
Both PG&E and private utility poles were on the 10.5-acre property, located about three miles north of Calistoga in a rural residential neighborhood, according to the report. Nearby homes were surrounded by vineyards, and oak and conifer woodlands.
There was little ground vegetation on the property, which had a swimming pool and wine cellar. The residence was built in 1946, investigators wrote.
PG&E said earlier this year in court documents that property owned by Ann Zink triggered the fire, according to a Santa Rosa Press Democrat report.
The utility identified Michael Andrews as the property’s caretaker and wrote that he had no electrical training and wasn’t licensed to do the work. Andrews authorized repairs to a power pole on the property in February 2017, according to the filing, but the Kelseyville-based general engineering contractor also did not have a California electrical license.
Investigators redacted the name of the property caretaker in their report, but referenced a witness who was described as the property owner’s daughter and could testify that “Mike Andrews is on the property at least once per week to make sure everything is working properly and maintained.”
Investigators referenced a caretaker whose last name was Andrews in the report. “Andrews” told Cal Fire that there was no gas service to the home on the day that the fire started, but power was on, according to the report.
PG&E equipment appeared to be in good condition, investigators wrote, while a private utility pole was almost “completely consumed by fire,” investigators wrote. “Andrews” had identified that private pole as being in a “weakened condition” and had planned to replace it soon, according to the report.
In a news release, PG&E said that despite the Cal Fire finding on the Tubbs fire, “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.
“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,” the utility said.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, whose district includes Napa, wrote in a statement Thursday that Cal Fire’s announcement shows that everyone has a role in preventing wildfires. Still, he wrote, Cal Fire has already identified PG&E as the party responsible for more than a dozen Northern California wildfires, and the utility’s leadership and culture must change.
“We still need to understand what this means for PG&E’s financial health and whether it will continue to pursue bankruptcy protection,” Dodd said, referencing the utility’s plans to pursue Chapter 11 bankruptcy following deadly wildfires in the last two years.
Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who represents Napa County, said she remained “most concerned about the victims of the Tubbs Fire, and the increasing number and seriousness of the wildfires over the past several years. The effort to rebuild after these horrific events continues and we must be ever-mindful of each victim’s well-being and their irreplaceable loss of family members and homes that they’ve spent their lives assembling.”
Aguiar-Curry said California should “redouble our efforts to significantly increase fire prevention activities in our state. The fact that there are multiple potential causes of these disasters should cement in our minds that the changing conditions in our environment will continue to result in more frequent and more serious wildfires.”
Last June, Cal Fire issued a report that said trees falling on PG&E power lines and other utility failures were responsible for at least 12 wildfires across six counties in October 2017. The utility was blamed for two major fires in Napa County: the Atlas and Partrick fires.
The Atlas fire burned 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures and resulted in six deaths in Soda Canyon and Silverado areas.
Calistoga Councilman Gary Kraus, who was the town’s fire chief from 1999 to 2006, said he was not surprised with the report’s findings.
“Fire investigators are very thorough and diligent. The report was 80 pages, that speaks to the thoroughness of Cal Fire’s investigation. And given the amount of damage, loss of life, and untold amounts of money involved, I’m sure they had their very best people on the case,” he said.
Cal Fire’s report will only be a part of investigations by public investigators, insurance companies, and attorneys who will pool their resources, he said, and this is by no means the end of it.
“Attorneys for people who lost assets will come to conclusions that it may not have been PG&E’s equipment, but they are still responsible. It will be hauled out in the courts for years,” Kraus said.
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said Cal Fire’s conclusion for the Tubbs fire “highlights the vulnerability of PG&E and private power systems.”