Damaged PG&E equipment found near origins of North Bay fires
State regulators have released previously withheld details in reports filed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. revealing the exact location of damaged transmission equipment found near the ignition points of the wildfires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties in October.
The documents — including the precise address and specific types of damaged equipment — provide new information about the proximity of PG&E equipment to the origins of the deadly Oct. 8 fires.
Cal Fire officials say their investigation is not complete, and PG&E officials stressed no causes of the fires have been identified. Nevertheless, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against PG&E alleging the fires were sparked when gale force winds sent overgrown tree limbs crashing into powerlines.
Redacted versions of the reports were released by the state Public Utilities Commission late last year, with specific address and equipment details withheld to preserve the integrity of the Cal Fire investigation. The PUC has now posted unredacted versions of the reports online.
The news Wednesday that his address on Nuns Canyon Road in Glen Ellen was listed as the location of a PG&E equipment failure didn’t surprise Tim Korn one bit.
The former owner of Relais du Soleil guest ranch, most of which burned to the ground, said the events of that night left little question in his mind about what sparked the blaze, which would eventually grow to become the largest of the North Coast fires, burning 54,300 acres, destroying 1,355 homes and killing three people.
“The fire did start at Nuns Canyon when a tree fell on a power pole and a transformer exploded,” Korn said. “I know because it woke me up.”
Korn, 75, ran the guest ranch for 22 years on the property at 1210 Nuns Canyon Road. The ranch had a separate PG&E metered line running to the well pump, he said, and there was a large tree with limbs overhanging the wire, he said. He said he believed the limbs of that tree caused the transformer explosion and the resulting power outage.
Recovering at the time from heart surgery, Korn initially decided to go back to sleep, he said. But his family members, including grandchildren, were sleeping in one of the cottages on the property, spotted the fire and tried to evacuate, he said.
“I was the first one to report the fire,” Korn said. “We saw exactly where it came from.”
But the fire grew quickly and blocked their retreat toward Highway 12, forcing them to flee farther up the narrow rural road where he and his family spent seven hours in a meadow surrounding by an inferno before they were able to escape, he said.
Korn, who lost most of his possessions in the fire but isn’t expecting a big insurance payout because he leased the property, said “PG&E has been out a bazillion times” to the property, and a guard was posted at Nuns Canyon Road for weeks after the fire.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility is fully cooperating with the investigation and is focused on helping its customers rebuild.
“We’ll let Cal Fire and CPUC investigators do their work, and we’re not going to speculate on the causes of the fires while the investigation is ongoing,” Contreras said
In its report, PG&E notes that during winds up to 58 mph, the top of an alder tree “broke and fell on an open wire secondary service” at Korn’s address. The report notes that Cal Fire had taken possession of the “overhead secondary distribution conductors” in question.
In addition to the Nuns fire, three other fires appear to have started in locations at or near the addresses where damaged PG&E equipment was discovered. These include:
— 4011 Atlas Peak Road, north of Napa, near the suspected start of the 51,642-acre Atlas fire;
— 1721 Partrick Road, west of Napa, near where the Partrick fire, which merged with the Nuns fire, is believed to have started; and
— 1128 Bennett Lane, Calistoga, near where the 36,807-acre Tubbs fire, the most destructive in state history, is believed to have begun.
Jim Frantz, principal of Frantz Law Group, said the new details support his suspicion the fires were caused by the utility’s failure to maintain trees and brush around its equipment. Frantz said he is representing hundreds of clients pursuing litigation against PG&E, including five wrongful death cases.
“We think their wires came down onto the ground and started the fires,” he said.
PG&E has raised the possibility that power equipment “owned, installed and maintained by a third party” in Calistoga might be responsible for the Tubbs fire. An Oct. 26 report lists the 1128 Bennett Lane property as the location where Cal Fire investigators took possession of “fused cutouts” and a “secondary service line” that “served multiple pieces of customer-owned equipment on the property.”
“No damage to PG&E equipment was readily apparent,” the report notes.
Frantz said the utility’s “private wire theory,” was “bogus.”
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said he didn’t know what led the California Public Utilities Commission to remove redactions in the reports.
The evidence-gathering phase of Cal Fire’s investigations into the cause of the October fires is done, but that doesn’t mean investigators won’t return to fire origin sites for follow-up, McLean said.
Cal Fire has not publicized a cause for any of the fires, and will do so on a rolling basis as each investigation is finalized. McLean said there’s no standard time frame for how long fire investigations take. He noted the cause of the 2015 Valley fire — electrical wiring of a hot tub — was made public “one day less than a year” after the fire started.
“Each fire is different,” McLean said.
Separate teams of Cal Fire investigators have been assigned to each fire. The teams start large and grow smaller as aspects of the investigation are completed.
Some of the locations where damaged equipment was discovered, such as Chateau St. Jean Winery in Kenwood, were enveloped by larger fires.
Another, on Sullivan Way in Santa Rosa, is near the spot of a small fire that destroyed a few homes and burned into the northern edge of Howarth Park before being extinguished. That fire, however, is not considered part of the larger wildfires.
Staff Writers Julie Johnson and Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.