Discovery of Outdoor Stove at Deadly 2017 Wildfire Site Could Impact Liability

By Jim Efstathiou Jr. and David R. Baker | January 7, 2019

PG&E Corp. said a camp stove was found near one of two spots where California officials have indicated utility equipment caused a deadly 2017 wildfire, raising the possibility that campers may have contributed to the blaze.

California’s largest utility owner said inspectors “observed plates, utensils and a camp stove on the ground,” in the charred debris of the Atlas fire, according to a court filing made public this week. A federal judge probing the utility’s possible role in the Atlas Fire has asked PG&E for all information it has on the blaze that burned almost 52,000 acres in Napa and Solano counties and claimed the lives of six people.

“Finding something like that is better than not, but there’s so much else going on that’s its certainly not a decisive event,” said Kit Konolige, a utility analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “PG&E is going to defend itself as well as it can and try to keep the damages down. The more mitigating circumstances the better.”

PG&E is facing billions of dollars of claims and potential criminal charges after investigators linked its equipment to fires that devastated Northern California’s wine country in 2017. The company’s shares have lost about half their value since the Nov. 8 outbreak of an even more destructive conflagration called the Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history, which leveled the northern California town of Paradise. Regulators have said they will consider steps including breaking up PG&E or turning it into a publicly owned utility after the string of disasters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said last year that the Atlas fire was among at least 17 of the 2017 wine country blazes ignited by PG&E equipment. In addition to the camp stove, PG&E’s latest court filing notes that a fallen tree limb “came to rest on a communications cable” without saying whether that line was damaged or may have contributed to the Atlas Fire. PG&E suggested it may not be held responsible for the Atlas Fire in June when it announced a $2.5 billion charge on earnings to cover wildfire lawsuits and excluded that blaze.

“PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety, and our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and help protect all of the customers we serve from the ever-increasing threat of wildfires,” according to a company statement emailed Friday in response to the judge’s request for more information. The utility is “currently reviewing and will respond” to the request.

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