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PG&E Transmission Lines Caused California Camp Fire, Investigators Say


In California, fire officials have been looking into what started a wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise. Now they say it was equipment owned and operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric utility. But it's not clear right now if PG&E will end up paying for the billions of dollars in damages or if victims of the fire will be able to get back what they've lost. Ben Adler from Capital Public Radio has that story.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: The Camp fire killed 85 people. It destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings. It was the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California history. A state investigation pinned the blame on sparks from PG&E power lines on a bone-dry, windy day. That finding came as no surprise to Paradise Mayor Jody Jones.


JODY JONES: It's a relief to have some finality and to finally know for sure. And I'm hopeful that this will spur PG&E to negotiate in good faith with the town regarding our lawsuit and their bankruptcy and all of that.

ADLER: Under California law, PG&E is liable for wildfire damages caused by its equipment. But because the company filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, wildfire victims suing the utility must compete against other creditors. What's more, PG&E might be able to pass part or all of its multi-billion-dollar bill onto its customers - millions of California ratepayers.

Here's Stanford professor Michael Wara.

MICHAEL WARA: What's going to matter is not just who caused the fire but whether PG&E had maintained and operated its system in a way that was prudent.

ADLER: The report assigning blame to PG&E came right as the company's new CEO was testifying to a state legislative committee.


BILL JOHNSON: Thank you, Mr. Chair. And members, good afternoon. Thank you...

ADLER: Bill Johnson says he already figured his company was to blame...

JOHNSON: It's a disappointment that this happened. Let's not do it again.

ADLER: ...And that PG&E customers should not have to pay for all the damages.


JOHNSON: I think if it's righting previous wrongs, the shareholders should pay their share of it.

ADLER: Governor Gavin Newsom slammed the utility in a bankruptcy court filing. He argues PG&E has failed to implement, quote, "fundamental management and cultural reforms to prioritize safety and reliable service."

For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF M. GRIG'S "STILL LIFE II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Adler