Alarming reports suggest that PG&E’s power lines may have sparked the wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties. While the majority of wildfires are typically attributed to human error, electrical fires have sparked some of California’s most devastating fires on record.
Improperly maintained power lines only account for about 3 percent of wildfires, but the fires they do cause can spread quickly since lines are often located in remote and windy areas.
Under California Public Resource Codes, utility companies are required to maintain specified clearances between trees and vegetation and power lines in mountainous, forest-covered, brush-covered, or grass-covered lands. One felled tree on a high-voltage power line can instantly spark a fire.
When utility companies fail to maintain their equipment, they can be hit with steep fines and be held liable for fire damage.
Common Causes of Electrical Fires
Power lines can spark a fire in a number of ways.
- Downed Power Lines: When a power line falls down, whether it’s caused by a falling tree or another reason, it remains energized until the utility company shuts it off. If vegetation on the ground comes in contact with the high-voltage downed conductor, it can spark a fire.
- Tree, Vegetation Contact: Even if a power line doesn’t collapse, contact with a tree branch or other vegetation can cause a fire over time. A tree branch lying between two conductors can produce high-temperature electrical arcs.
- Conductor Slap: Conductors are specifically placed so that they don’t come in contact with each other. But if they do contact each other in the event of an equipment failure, they can produce hot metal particles that can ignite vegetation on the ground.
- Equipment Failure: Aging equipment is susceptible to sparking when it begins to fail. If not replaced, the sparks can gain in intensity and ignite nearby combustibles.
2007 San Diego Wildfires Attributed to Utility Companies
The Guejito, Witch, and Rice fires scorched 207,000 acres, destroyed 1,141 homes, and killed two people in San Diego County.
Investigators determined that fires broke out when San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) power lines and Cox Communications cables ignited vegetation that hadn’t been properly cleared.
SDG&E never admitted liability, but they did agree to pay more than $2 billion in settlements. Cox Communications agreed to pay $444 million.
PG&E’s Decades-Long Wildfire History
Further north, PG&E’s equipment was found to be the cause of multiple wildfires.
In April of 2017, the utility company was fined $8.3 million for their failure to properly maintain a power line that sparked and caused the Butte Fire. The September 2015 fire killed two people and destroyed 549 homes in Amador County.
The company still faces more than 1,000 lawsuits for the Butte Fire. CalFire is also fighting to have the company pay $90 million in firefighting costs.
PG&E was also found to be guilty on 739 counts of negligence associated with the 1994 Rough and Ready wildfire. California state regulators hit them with $30 million in penalties.
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If you were injured or suffered damages caused by the wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties, you may eligible for a lawsuit. Contact us to learn more about your legal rights.