The investigation into what sparked the most destructive wildfire in modern California history is centered on a rural property northwest of downtown Calistoga, a wooded plot with a modest home that, according to its owner, was unoccupied when it burned to the ground.
While authorities have not discussed the precise point of origin of the Tubbs Fire, the 10-acre property on Bennett Lane, just north of Highway 128, has been blocked off since the blaze ignited the night of Oct. 8, first by Cal Fire investigators and then by representatives of a property management company.
On Friday, they could be seen walking the blackened grounds with workers from an insurance company, inspecting the shell of the former house, along with razed structures around a swimming pool and a partially burned carport. But the property managers declined to comment on their work — or the status of the probe.
In a brief telephone interview Friday from her part-time home in Indian Wells (Riverside County), the property owner, 89-year-old Ann Zink, said she was in Southern California when the fire started and wasn’t able to recover anything from the home before it was reduced to ash and rubble.
She said she believed a lightning strike had kicked up the fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed 4,655 homes, 94 commercial buildings and 894 outbuildings as a windstorm blew the flames west into Sonoma County and northern Santa Rosa. However, state officials said they ruled out lightning.
Investigators working to pinpoint the cause of the Tubbs Fire — along with the other blazes that ravaged Northern California last month, killing 43 people and leaving billions in damage — have been looking at overhead Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines as one possible ignition source.
But they said that their work is far from complete and that they haven’t ruled out a number of other possible causes. Wildfire investigations often take several months or even more than a year to complete.
Although PG&E officials have not said whether their equipment may be to blame for any of the fires, the utility said in a court filing Thursday that the Tubbs Fire may have been started by electrical equipment not owned or installed by the company. Attorneys for PG&E said that “preliminary investigations suggest that this fire might have been caused by electrical equipment that was owned, installed and maintained by a third party.”
Zink said she wasn’t aware of any electrical issues on her property.
The PG&E filing, which came in response to lawsuits filed by fire victims, gives no supporting evidence for the company’s claim other than referring to an electric incident report that the utility submitted to state regulators in the wake of the fires. The report, released to the public last week, described Cal Fire investigators taking possession of customer-owned overhead lines on a property near Calistoga.
A PG&E spokesman declined to elaborate on the filing’s assertion. Cal Fire officials said they would not comment on their investigations. As of Wednesday, they said, 28 investigators continued working to determine the cause of the wildfires in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties.
“We have not released any information to anybody,” said Deputy Chief Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman. “Our investigations are ours, and I’m not sure what PG&E is talking about.”
The Tubbs Fire started near Zink’s property about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 8, and all of the structures on the property were leveled. On Friday, yellow crime-scene-style tape surrounded each site. A home next door was also destroyed, and private security guards blocked the driveways of both homes.
A representative of the management company overseeing Zink’s property, who did not want to be identified by name, said the home had been unoccupied when the fire started. He said the property was being inspected by an insurance company.
Nearby, 77-year-old Charlie Brown worked on his Bennett Lane property, which survived while only a few outbuildings burned, including a shed and pump house. He said he rents the home to a woman who awoke the night of the fire as flames crawled over a ridge separating his house from the Zink residence. The tenant didn’t have time to put on shoes before fleeing, Brown said.
Investigators had been at his home, too, and Brown is eager to learn what sparked the fire. He said he returned to his property for the first time Monday.
“I thought for sure it burned,” he said, noting that the Tubbs Fire was the third wildfire, including one in 1964, that spared his home but destroyed neighbors’ houses. “It’s a miracle.”