PG&E reports show gusts, falling trees likely caused Wind Complex fires | TheUnion.com

PG&E reports show gusts, falling trees likely caused Wind Complex fires

In the aftermath of the Lobo and McCourtney fires of early October, many Nevada County residents were left wondering what, exactly caused the devastating wildfires.

Some speculated the blazes, which sparked up along McCourtney Road and the Rough and Ready area almost simultaneously, were caused by arson. Others looked to wind gusts toppling pine trees, which in turn brought down power lines that sparked brush fires.

Documents recently released by PG&E would seem to point to those wind gusts as the culprits. But estimating the utility company's financial responsibility likely will drag on for a long time.

The Lobo fire, which burned 821 acres, and the McCourtney fire, at 76 acres, were eventually subsumed into the Wind Complex of fires, with 398 total structures destroyed in three counties. Fires killed 23 people and destroyed nearly 7,000 structures in Sonoma County.

Nearly two months after the fires, PG&E — in cooperation with Cal Fire — still is investigating the cause of those fires and others that ravaged entire communities in Northern California.

In early November, state regulators released reports from PG&E that documented at least 20 cases of downed power lines across Northern California the night of Oct. 8; two of the 20 incidents were located in Nevada County. The reports disclose sites where PG&E personnel examined equipment failures, mostly caused by partial or whole trees falling into wires late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9, when wind-whipped fires raced across the region.

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A California Public Records Act request filed by The Union on Nov. 2 to the state Public Utilities Commission sought any further incident reports specific to Nevada County. The commission had requested a time extension to review its records; on Monday, it sent a letter stating that no further records had been found.

The commission has made it a priority to post Incident Reports on its website, said Legal Division Attorney Kathleen Chovan.

"Please note these Incident Reports are temporarily redacted of data that would identify the specific location of an incident, in order to allow the Commission and Cal Fire to collect evidence and complete their review of the reported incident locations," Chovan said.

reports document falling trees as causing outages

One of the incident reports is identifiable as a fallen tree in the 11000 block of Orion Way, with the outage reported as starting at about 11 p.m. on Oct. 8 near Grass Valley.

"PG&E identified a broken tree and wire down," the report reads. "A green, healthy ponderosa pine tree, approximately 80 feet tall and rooted 6 to 8 feet from the distribution conductors, broke at the base and fell, taking all three primary conductors to the ground. The property loss, reported as a garage with three vintage cars, is believed to exceed $50,000."

That garage was the property of Bob Foster, who told Fox 40 news the wooden structure had contained his "childhood toys" — a 1955 Chevrolet truck, a 1964 Studebaker GT Hawk and a Corvair convertible.

The second incident report lists a redacted location near Nevada City and a time of 11:20 p.m. Oct. 8. The report stated that a ponderosa tree rooted downhill approximately 50 feet from distribution conductors had fallen, causing an outage.

"PG&E's meteorology department determined that there were wind gusts in the area up to 40 mph prior to the event," the report reads. "Cal Fire has removed the tree and has taken possession of the primary conductors."

It is not known whether that incident relates to the McCourtney or Lobo fires; a resident of a property in the 11000 block of McCourtney Road has said that a blown transformer sparked the fire that demolished at least two houses, a trailer and a barn on that road across from the fairgrounds.

Cal Fire investigators have collected evidence including damaged power poles, wires and other pieces of utility equipment from at least eight sites where PG&E reported "electrical safety incidents," according to the incident reports.

PG&E is required to report all documented instances of tree branches and other vegetation and debris impacting electric lines to the utilities commission. PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler said the incident reports published by the commission are preliminary and there may be more coming.

More than 100 people already have filed nine separate complaints against PG&E, alleging poor maintenance of its high-voltage lines caused the wildfires in Sonoma County, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported.

A lot of money is at stake; a state court fined PG&E $8.3 million last year in connection with the 2015 Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties that killed two people, burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed 475 residences.

The fire was blamed on a tree that fell into PG&E power lines, causing Cal Fire to hold PG&E responsible due to poor tree maintenance. Cal Fire had sought to recover the $90 million it said it spent on firefighting costs.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lkellar@theunion.com.

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