PG&E Had Outage Before Camp Fire’s Start; Fire’s Cause Still Unknown

Camp Fire Cause

Getty Camp Fire Cause

The Camp Fire is now the deadliest fire in California’s history, with at least 42 deaths reported and more than 200 still missing. (Read about the victims of the Camp Fire in Heavy’s story here.) The fire that decimated Paradise in Butte County is still not completely under control and danger still remains. So what caused the Camp Fire? How did it get started and why did it spread so fast? Although an official cause hasn’t been released, some theories are being circulated that could be alarming if true. Read on for the details.

CAL FIRE Said the Cause of the Fire Is Still Under Investigation & They Don’t Yet Know What Started the Deadly Blaze

CAL FIRE’s incident report currently lists the cause of the Camp Fire as “under investigation.” This means they haven’t determined yet if the fire was caused by a natural incident, like lightning, or human activity. As of Tuesday, November 13, the fire is 125,000 acres in size and 30 percent contained.

Lynsey Paulo, PG&E spokeswoman, said Cal Fire hadn’t determined the fire’s cause yet, Sacbee reported. The information about an outage near where the fire started “is preliminary and there is no determination on the cause of the fire as of yet.”

Geisha Williams, PG&E President, told Chico Enterprise-Record on Tuesday that they still didn’t know what caused the fire. “We haven’t had access to the site yet,” she said. “Employees have not seen the site.” Williams said that PG&E’s goal is to “support the community every step of the way.”

PG&E Emailed a Woman About Needing to Check Her Property for Power Line Sparks, & the Fire Started Nearby the Next Day

A report that has been shared by AP is alarming, however. It’s important to emphasize that this report simply shares information about what happened just before the Camp Fire started. This is not proof of the fire’s cause.

A day before the Camp Fire started on November 8, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. contacted Betsy Ann Cowley about power lines that were causing sparks, AP reported. The next day, the fire started in Pulga, near Cowley’s property.

Cowley said she was on vacation when she got the email on Wednesday, November 7, from PG&E. The email said that crews needed to access her property to work on the power lines because “they were having problems with sparks,” AP reported. They visited her property while she wasn’t there.

AP said the area where CAL FIRE says the fire started is roughly the same area where PG&E said it detected sparks on Cowley’s property.

Before the fire started, PG&E said it was considering shutting down power in nine counties, including Butte County, because of fire danger, but ultimately decided not to.

The Power Lines Are Now a Crime Scene

Fire investigators have declared that the fire lines near Cowley’s property are a crime scene, AP reported. Security guards won’t let PG&E inspectors past. PG&E said the email was simply an “initial electric incident report.”

Cowley, a former landscaper, bought Pulga when it was an abandoned gold prospecting town in 2015. She worked on transforming it into a private destination, working with Bay Area artists, and built a stage house and a school house too.

Just minutes before the fire started, PG&E said publicly that it was having problems with an electrical transmission line in the area, AP reported. PG&E said in a public filing that it had detected an outage near what would become the site of the fire. An aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower there.

PG&E Has Been Found Liable for Fires in California Before

PG&E has been sued before about fires. In 2016, CAL FIRE found that PG&E was responsible for a 2015 fire that killed two people, destroyed 475 homes, and burned 70,000 acres. They said that PG&E’s contractors caused a tree to fall on a power line that started the blaze.

Investigators also determined that PG&E’s equipment started a series of 2017 fires that killed 44 people in the north California wine country. PG&E will be paying about $2.5 billion, AP reported.

PG&E Stock Has Fallen

Now PG&E stock is falling because of the investigation, Sacbee reported. Their stock price fell by one third since PG&E said that one of its lines had an outage around the same time that the Camp Fire started in Pulga. The outage happened at 6:15 a.m., just 14 minutes before CAL FIRE says the fire started.

High Winds Caused the Fire To Spread So Fast

Strong winds and low humidity with dry conditions combined to help the fire grow as fast as it did. The main component in why this and the other fires in California grew so much is wind, with gusts up to 60 miles an hour or more in some places, Wired reported. Dry vegetation helped the winds push the fires even more. When the winds died down a bit on Saturday, firefighters were able to make some progress and get a little containment in place. However, gusts did pick back up.

Wired explained that the winds originated from a jet stream of strong winds in the upper atmosphere that is common this time of year.

In the past, some devastating California fires have been started by human activity. For example, just this past July, Brandon McGlover was arrested on suspicion of starting not one but multiple fires in California, including the Cranston Fire. Witnesses reported that they saw a man in his vehicle stopping and starting fires along the road.  Then in August, Forrest Gordon Clark was arrested in connection with the Holy Fire. He reportedly sent an email warning that the place would burn.

CAL FIRE is still investigating this fire’s cause. 

READ NEXT: Here are the names and photos of the Camp Fire victims who died in the fire.