Greg Wilson is not alone in his skepticism over what ignited the 2017 Tubbs fire that forced him and his wife to cower in their pool while flames destroyed their Mark West Springs home and neighborhood and thousands of other homes on its deadly path from northern Napa County to Santa Rosa.
Cal Fire’s announcement early this year that private power equipment at a Bennett Lane home near Calistoga started the Tubbs fire and not Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s power grid upended widely held beliefs that the utility was responsible for the deadly fire, as it was for other major fires during the 2017 October firestorm and the following year.
Wilson and others wanted to contest Cal Fire’s findings before a civil jury and argue state investigators missed or disregarded key evidence that they believe shows a blown fuse on one of the utility’s power poles dropped hot metal on parched grasses below. But their lawsuits were halted in January when PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection under pressure from upward of $30 billion in liability from wildfires ignited by the company’s power equipment.
Wilson and other wildfire survivors may still get their chance. On Wednesday, they’re asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali to consider lifting the stay in the civil case and allowing them to pursue a fast-tracked state court trial on PG&E’s liability for the Tubbs fire.
“If we get our day in court, and it’s proven that it wasn’t PG&E’s fault — a jury decides it’s not — I can live with that,” said Wilson, who said his lungs were damaged by the smoky air he was forced to breathe that night. “What I can’t live with is the Cal Fire investigation. They missed something. They didn’t take everything into consideration.”
At stake is the ability for households, businesses and local governments that suffered losses from the Tubbs fire to argue in bankruptcy court for compensation from the utility, which has denied in court proceedings liability for the Tubbs fire.
So far, PG&E already has agreed to pay more than $1 billion to local governments and public agencies affected by recent wildfires. That includes $415 million to about a dozen public entities with wildfire losses from 2017, including costs incurred in Sonoma County from the Tubbs fire.
But proposed payouts for Tubbs fire victims being discussed in closed-door negotiations are said to fall short compared to those proposed for other fires. Even if PG&E’s equipment didn’t spark the fire, Tubbs fire victims believe the company is responsible for the damage due to its poor track record preparing for wildfires and maintaining its power grid.
“Right now, nobody is taking PG&E’s liability for the Tubbs fire seriously,” in the bankruptcy proceedings, said Dario de Ghetaldi, a Sacramento-based attorney representing fire victims. “The amount of money they’re offering in their plans is woefully inadequate, as in chicken feed.”
A leading alternative theory to how the Tubbs fire started is based on evidence collected by private fire investigators. The evidence includes video from a Bennett Lane winery surveillance camera that shows a bright flash in the area more than 20 minutes before the official start of the Tubbs fire.
The private investigation put together by groups of law firms representing victims concluded the fire started when a fuse on PG&E Power Pole 773 shorted, dropping hot metal on parched vegetation on the ground, de Ghetaldi said. He said that short, documented in PG&E reports, could mean the fuses blew and no power was going to the private property at the time Cal Fire concluded the fire started. But a PG&E troubleman discarded the main two fuses on the pole while repairing infrastructure after the fire, according to a deposition taken in the civil case before the utility filed for bankruptcy and halted pretrial proceedings.
“To this day you can see significant charring on the pole on the Highway 128 side that goes about 10 or 11 feet up the pole,” de Ghetaldi said.
Cal Fire officials defend the quality of the Tubbs fire investigation.
Michael Mohler, deputy director of communications for Cal Fire, said they have a systematic process for determining the cause and origin of wildfires investigations, and that they looked at all of the available evidence, including the Bennett Lane surveillance video showing a flash of light discussed by plaintiffs suing PG&E. He said the agency stands by the investigation and lead investigator Battalion Chief John Martinez.
“We’ve seen so much destruction, and for the fire survivors we want to do everything we can to support them including give them what they are owed: A complete and thorough investigation,” Mohler said.
Cal Fire investigators had a copy of the winery video and examined the power pole during the state’s 16-month investigation, and none of those steps changed their findings, Mohler said.
Rumors that Cal Fire has reopened its investigation into the Tubbs fire are not true, he said.
“It was in the investigators hands very early on,” Mohler said. “There’s no question they looked at that and moved forward. Did they take it into consideration? Absolutely.”
Last week, word that PG&E was planning to replace Power Pole 773 created an outcry from wildfire survivors, who were concerned the utility would discard evidence important to their case.
PG&E officials on Monday said they were replacing the pole as part of the utility’s “system hardening efforts” and will preserve the pole. The utility notified the California Public Utilities Commission and parties in the bankruptcy case that it would be removing the equipment.
The company invited members of a committee in the bankruptcy case to be present Tuesday morning when crews take down the old pole and replace it with a new one.
“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, and we are committed to assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and help protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires,” PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said in an email. “Cal Fire’s written report on the 2017 Tubbs fire concluded that PG&E facilities did not cause the fire.”