PG&E Corp. revealed that on the day California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire started, its workers saw damage and a fire near one of its transmission towers, which are the focus of investigations and a lawsuit as a possible ignition point.
The company has been under intense scrutiny over whether its equipment sparked the blaze, which killed 86 people and leveled the town of Paradise in Northern California. No cause has been determined.
PG&E has lost nearly 47 percent of its market value since the start of the Camp Fire amid investor concern that the San Francisco-based utility could face billions in liabilities from the blaze. The company’s equipment has already been blamed for causing 17 of last year’s devastating wine country fires, which killed 44 people, and investigators accused it of violating state law in 11 of those incidents.
According to a new letter from PG&E to the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said one of its employees observed fire in the vicinity of a tower at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, three minutes before the official start time of the blaze, and reported it to authorities. The line had tripped offline at 6:15 a.m., it said.
The company also revealed in the letter that later in the afternoon of Nov. 8, an aerial patrol saw that a piece of insulation had separated from an arm on the tower, which is along its Caribou-Palermo high-voltage transmission line running through Butte County.
Additionally, workers on Nov. 14 discovered a broken C-hook attached to the insulation of the same tower with “wear” at the connection point, according to the letter. PG&E also observed a “flash mark” on the tower. Coordinates near that tower, identified as Tower :27/222, had earlier been identified as the likely origin of the fire by state investigators.
PG&E assisted investigators with the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection in collecting equipment from the site, the utility said.
A lawsuit filed last week in San Francisco County Superior Court alleges that an insulator on one of the company’s towers failed, allowing an uninsulated cable to dangle free and contact the tower. “Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp Fire,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint.
PG&E also said in the Dec. 11 letter that one of its workers on Nov. 9 observed a downed pole, with bullet holes at the break point, where the utility reported a second power failure shortly after the fire started. Later, workers also observed several snapped trees on top of downed wires near that location, which is the second possible ignition point identified by investigators.
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