PG&E inundated as disaster began
San Francisco Chronicle | By Joaquin Palomino and David R. Baker
Just before 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, a tree branch fell into a power line in the town of Kenwood east of Santa Rosa as sparks were scattered by heavy winds. Local emergency officials contacted Pacific Gas and Electric Co., asking the utility to immediately evaluate the damage because of the evening’s dangerous fire conditions.
It was one of the first reported electrical disturbances in Sonoma County the night that numerous fires erupted across the North Bay, and would prove a harbinger of things to come.
As the night progressed, county dispatchers recorded 111 fire and medical emergencies, from a thick smell of smoke near the coast to flames scorching a creek trail in central Santa Rosa. Nearly half of those incidents mentioned downed or sparking power lines, blown transformers or other concerns with PG&E’s equipment, a Chronicle review of dispatch logs shows.
The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has not determined the causes of the wildfires that swept across Wine Country in October, destroying whole neighborhoods and killing at least 45 people. But among the suspected sources are power lines, which have been responsible for some of the nation’s most devastating fires.
During the first night of the conflagration, county dispatchers contacted PG&E about troubles with gas and electrical lines in at least 54 locations. There were many additional electrical issues recorded in the dispatch logs that the utility was not advised about.
The problems became so prevalent that a PG&E representative was called into the dispatch center to help handle the deluge of reports — a rare measure that has happened only once before, said Aaron Abbott, who runs Sonoma County’s fire and medical emergency dispatch center, the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority.
“It was certainly surprising, it was certainly unusual, and yeah, that’s a high number,” Abbott said, referring to the dozens of times his agency contacted PG&E. “I won’t pretend to know what did or didn’t start the fires, but we certainly had a lot of electrical issues in the county that night.”
The Chronicle was unable to obtain similar records from Napa County, where most of the major fires originated, before publication. And officials at Cal Fire would not comment on the newspaper’s review of the dispatch logs, because of the agency’s investigation into the wildfires.
Reports of downed or sparking power lines in an area burned by fire does not necessarily mean that the line started the flames. PG&E often has emphasized a point echoed by fire investigation experts: Sometimes a fire will damage electrical lines and utility poles, rather than the lines themselves starting the flames.
“It’s important to remember that there has been no determination on the causes of any of the fires,” said Keith Stephens, senior director of communications for PG&E.
Some outside experts said the major wildfires have the signature of a lightning storm: Many disparate blazes breaking out over a short window of time across a large area. But because there were no reported lightning strikes in the North Bay when the flames erupted, the most likely culprit is electrical wires, said Steve Pyne, a professor and fire historian at Arizona State University who is not directly involved in California’s investigation.
“From what I know, power lines seem like the most plausible explanation,” he said. “And it’s not a freak thing. It happens all over the country.”
In Sonoma County late on Oct. 8 and early on Oct. 9, dispatchers handled a flood of reported problems with the electrical grid. Within seconds of each other, calls about downed and arcing power lines came from opposite ends of Santa Rosa; blue bursts and green sparks shooting out of transformers were reported miles apart.
Many of the electrical issues were accompanied by reports of fires and requests for PG&E to respond to the scene or restore or shut off power.
At around 9:50 p.m. on Oct. 8, 35 mph winds pushed flames toward homes in a rural part of Healdsburg that would later become an isolated portion of the Tubbs Fire. Dispatch logs show that power lines may have been involved, and PG&E sent field personnel to the location to begin restoration work.
At 10:20 p.m., a number of callers reported seeing a possible transformer explosion, downed wires and a field on fire on both sides of Highway 101 in Windsor; again PG&E was advised. Within 10 minutes, the utility had a crew on site, assessing the damage and trying to figure out how to restore power to 500 nearby customers who had lost service.
Shortly after 11 p.m., dispatch received word of downed power lines and fire engulfing buildings near 8555 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood — a town that would later be decimated by the blazes. Witnesses reported flames approaching a winery and ammonia tanks, which can be explosive. PG&E inspected the area two days later and found that a 60-foot-tall eucalyptus tree had toppled into a power line, knocking three wires to the ground.
And around midnight, there were calls about power lines arcing into a tree and an active fire in Occidental — a rural town 15 miles west of Santa Rosa left untouched by the major wildfires. County dispatchers requested emergency assistance from PG&E, which sent someone to the location to help first responders.
Through the rest of the night until sunrise, dispatchers would handle nearly 400 fire-related incidents all over the county, including many reports of downed or damaged electrical equipment, some throwing sparks into nearby vegetation. Calls continued Oct. 9, with an increasing number mentioning hissing, leaking or burning gas lines.
“There’s fires in Kenwood, fires in the middle of Santa Rosa, fire up near the county line, fires out in Sonoma Valley, fires up in Geyserville, hazardous conditions in Occidental and Sebastopol,” Abbott said. “It was really a widespread emergency that was occurring very rapidly.”
Although Cal Fire’s investigation remains open, records PG&E filed with state regulators show that the utility found damaged electrical equipment at or near the suspected primary starting points for the four biggest Wine Country fires: the Atlas, Nuns, Partrick and Tubbs fires.
PG&E crews responding to three of those locations discovered tree limbs — or in one case, an entire tree — striking electrical equipment. At the fourth location, Cal Fire investigators took possession of a downed PG&E line leading to a burned home, as well as several sections of a power line owned by the homeowner.
In all, the utility filed 20 incident reports with the state, reporting significant damage to its equipment across eight counties. PG&E also fielded many calls on the night of the fires, both from dispatch centers across the region and through the utility’s own emergency number.
“We received calls from many, many locations — not just Sonoma,” Stephens said.
Problems with power lines are relatively common during windstorms and have caused some of the nation’s worst wildfires.
One of the largest fires in New Mexico history erupted after a tree fell on a power line in 2011. That year, authorities suspect the most destructive firestorm recorded in Texas began after winds blew dead pine trees into electrical lines.
In California, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. paid out $2.4 billion to settle lawsuits spurred by a series of wildfires in 2007 sparked by electrical equipment blown about by powerful winds. Of the 10 most destructive wildfires fires in California with a known cause, four were found to be started by malfunctioning electrical equipment.
“This has been a slow-moving catastrophe for the public utilities in California,” said Mike Rohde, a consultant based in Orange County for firefighting agencies and public utilities. “The liability generated from wildfires has threatened the financial integrity of some of these companies.”
While many experts consider damaged power lines one of the most likely culprits for the Wine Country fires, the conditions that night — strong winds, low humidity and years of built-up vegetation dried by drought — would have made any spark a threat.
A vehicle dragging a chain, unextinguished burn piles rekindled by the wind, and arsonists all have caused fires to break out in many places over a short period of time, said Paul Steensland, a former fire investigator and retired U.S. Forest Service senior special agent.
Electrical fires almost always leave some physical evidence, which investigators will probably search for. Remnants of a branch that hit a power line, pieces of aluminum that melted and fell to the ground, and remains of a blown fuse are commonly present.
If the soil composition is right, something called a fulgurite can also be created — fused soil that looks like coral.
Cal Fire has not set a definitive timeline for completing its investigation, but at a state senate subcommittee hearing in Santa Rosa on Friday, Chief Ken Pimlott said that more than 30 investigators are searching for what started the Wine Country fires, and that each blaze will have its own report.
“It’s painstaking, and as you indicated, there’s a lot at stake,” Pimlott told the legislators, many of whom are eagerly seeking answers about about the disaster. “Hopefully, in the next several months, we’ll be reaching a conclusion on many of these . … I can tell you the process is very far along.”