CAL FIRE crews and equipment are a familiar sight throughout the State with responsibility for the protection of over 31 million acres of California's privately-owned wildlands. In addition, they provide emergency services of all kinds within 36 of California's 58 counties through local government contracts. -- http://calfire.ca.gov/fire_protection/fire_protection
Cal Fire, the state's huge fire, rescue and emergency services bureaucracy is facing growing external challenges in the forms of global warming, millions of dead trees, utility power lines strung from ranchette to ranchette throughout the foothills, and a large influx of irresponsible and often dangerous dope growers in regions under its jurisdiction, and internally from a workforce that does not uniformly behave in a responsible manner. On the other hand, the top managers' attempts to punish off-duty drinking smack of some sort of PR ploy rather than a serious attempt to address problems of morale and the addictions endemic to working people, particularly in hard, dangerous jobs like logging and fire fighting. What it looks like, in fact, is a political policy to install and close a thousand locks on the barn door after a very expensive horse has gone. It is beginning to look like a corrupt bureaucracy, whose reach for new territories and revenues has far exceeded its grasp of competent fire fighting, has put their money down on blaming others, any others, but the big shots at the top. This makes the state a more dangerous place to live. -- blj
“The court finds that Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted,” the judge wrote. “Cal Fire failed to comply with discovery obligations, and its repeated failure was willful.”
The agency withheld documents for months, “destroyed evidence critical (to the case) and engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from (Sierra Pacific)",,,
The company also has said there is evidence the federal watcher in a lookout tower may have been smoking marijuana at a time the blaze was smoldering in its infancy, and defense lawyers had to work hard to pry that information out of the Forest Service. By the time the watcher saw it, there were flames in addition to smoke, the company contended. -- Walsh and Stanton, Sacramento Bee, Feb. 6, 2014
Columbia University/Earth Institute
Increasing Heat Is Driving Off Clouds That Dampen California Wildfires
Urbanization and Climate Change Combine to Heighten Danger
By Kevin Krajick|
Sunny California may be getting too sunny. Increasing summer temperatures brought on by a combination of intensifying urbanization and warming climate are driving off once common low-lying morning clouds in many southern coastal areas of the state, leading to increased risk of wildfires, says a new study.
“Cloud cover is plummeting in southern coastal California,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the research. “And as clouds decrease, that increases the chance of bigger and more intense fires.” Williams said the decrease is driven mainly by urban sprawl, which increases near-surface temperatures, but that overall warming climate is contributing, too. Increasing heat drives away clouds, which admits more sunlight, which heats the ground further, leading to dryer vegetation, and higher fire risk, said Williams. The study appears this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The research follows a 2015 study in which Williams first documented a decrease in cloud cover around the sprawling Los Angeles and San Diego areas. Urban pavement and infrastructure absorb more solar energy than does the countryside, and that heat gets radiated back out into the air–a major part of the so-called heat-island effect, which makes cities generally hotter than the rural areas. At the same time, overall temperatures have been rising in California due to global warming, and this has boosted the effect. In the new study, Williams and his colleagues have found a 25 to 50 percent decrease in low-lying summer clouds since the 1970s in the greater Los Angeles area.
Normally, stratus clouds form over coastal southern California during early morning within a thin layer of cool, moist ocean air sandwiched between the land and higher air masses that are too dry for cloud formation. The stratus zone’s altitude varies with weather, but sits at roughly 1,000 to 3,000 feet. But heat causes clouds to dissipate, and decades of intense urban growth plus global warming have been gnawing away at the stratus layer’s base, causing the layer to thin and clouds to burn off earlier in the day or disappear altogether. Cloud bases have risen 150 to 300 feet since the 1970s, says the study. “Clouds that used to burn off by noon or 1 o’clock are now gone by 10 or 11, if they form at all,” said Williams.
Williams and others have demonstrated a strong link between warming climate and increased wildfire in the western United States. But in southern California the link is more subtle, and clouds are a rarely studied part of the system.
While few scientists have looked in detail at clouds, many California airports large and small have been collecting hourly cloud observations since the 1970s, not for research, but rather for navigational safety. Williams and his colleagues decided to tap this trove to develop a fine-grained picture of changing cloud cover over the region. They then compared it to a separate large database kept by the U.S. Wildland Fire Assessment System, whose researchers have regularly measured vegetation moisture in the hills outside Los Angeles for decades. By comparing the two sets of data, the team found that periods of less cloud cover during the summer correlated neatly with lower vegetation moisture, and thus more danger of fire.
However, the study did not find that total area burned in summer has increased as a result of decreases in cloud shading. There are too many other factors at play, said Williams. These include yearly variations in rainfall, winds, locations where fires start, and perhaps most of all, decreases in burnable area as urban areas have expanded, and the increased effectiveness of fire-fighting. “Even though the danger has increased, people in these areas are very good at putting out fires, so the area burned hasn’t gone up,” he said. “But the dice are now loaded, and in areas where clouds have decreased, the fires should be getting more intense and harder to contain. At some point, we’ll see if people can continue to keep up.”
The catastrophic California-wide fires that consumed over 550,000 acres in fall of 2017 were probably not strongly affected by the reductions in summer cloud cover, said Williams. Although he did find that vegetation is drier in fall seasons that follow summers with few clouds, the fall 2017 fires were driven mainly by extreme winds and a late onset of the fall rainy season. And ironically, part of this record wildfire wave resulted not from a recent record four-year drought driven in part by climate change, but rather from record rains that followed the drought, which produced a surfeit of flammable vegetation. Things will vary year to year, but Williams said he expects to see overall fire danger increase in California, as long as there is adequate vegetation to burn.
The other authors of the study are Pierre Gentine of Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; Max Moritz and Dar Roberts of the University of California, Santa Barbara; and John Abatzoglou of the University of Idaho, Moscow.
San Francisco Chronicle
Illicit pot growers are polluting state, even with new law
The legalization of cannabis in California has done almost nothing to halt illegal marijuana growing by Mexican drug cartels, which are laying bare large swaths of national forest in California, poisoning wildlife, and siphoning precious water out of creeks and rivers, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said Tuesday.
The situation is so dire that federal, state and local law enforcement officials are using $2.5 million from the Trump administration this year to crack down on illegal growers, who Scott said have been brazenly setting booby traps, confronting hikers and attacking federal drug-sniffing dogs with knives.
Instead of fading away after legal marijuana retail sales went into effect this year, the problem has gotten worse, according to Scott, who was joined in a news conference Tuesday in Sacramento by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and other federal forestry and law enforcement officials.
Most alarming, Scott said, is the increasing use of carbofuran, a federally restricted insecticide so powerful that a teaspoon of it can kill a 600-pound African lion. The insecticide is banned in California.
The problem of illegal growing operations and contaminated lands “is biblical in proportion,” he said. “The chemicals have gone to a different level.”
The cartels, mainly from Mexico, use 760 tons of fertilizer on 400 grows every year hidden on the 20 million acres of national forest land in California, officials said.
The growers clear-cut trees, remove native vegetation, cause erosion, shoot deer and other animals, and litter the landscape with garbage and human waste. They also divert hundreds of millions of gallons of water from streams and creeks, and the runoff is generally contaminated with pesticides, which are also found in the plants, soil and wildlife in the area.
This year, 70 percent of the endangered spotted owls tested near sites that had been used for illegal marijuana cultivation were found to have one rodenticide or more in their systems, officials said. One owl died, leaving a clutch of eggs. Last year, 43 poisoned animals were found, including deer, bears, foxes, coyotes, rabbits and rare Pacific fishers. Another 47 animals had been shot, most likely by illegal growers, authorities said.
Since 2012, 17 Pacific fishers have been killed by pesticides at grow sites, said Mourad Gabriel, the director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, a wildlife and environmental research nonprofit. He said carbofuran was found in 78 percent of the plantations eradicated in 2017. That’s compared with 40 percent in 2015 and only 10 to 12 percent in 2012, when he conducted the first scientific study of illegal marijuana grow sites.
“It’s concerning, because now when we go into these sites we find contamination in the native vegetation, the soil, the water; and it’s increasing,” said Gabriel, whose research is funded by state and federal grants. “Those sites are still contaminated two or three years later.”
In all, 1.4 million illegally grown marijuana plants were destroyed in raids in national forests in California in 2017.
Bill Ruzzamenti, the former director of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, said California supplies 60 to 80 percent of all the marijuana consumed in the nation. In 2016, he said, 11 million pounds left the state, which is illegal under Proposition 64, the initiative that legalized the drug for recreational use in the state.
The people guarding the grow sites are inevitably armed and “a public safety risk to all of us,” said Becerra.
Margaret Mims, the sheriff of Fresno County, said hikers, backpackers and nature lovers have reported running across fishhooks hanging at eye level and trip wires possibly attached to shotguns.
“I have grandkids and I like to go fishing, but there are places we will not go because I am afraid for my grandkids,” said Ruzzamenti, who is now director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. “That should be unacceptable to everybody.”
The problem isn’t new. Bootleg cannabis has been circulating around Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — the famed Emerald Triangle — for decades, and backwoods growing is ingrained in the culture.
Ruzzamenti said he has been trying to eradicate black-market growing on public lands since 1983. And Mexican cartels aren’t the only problem. Only a few hundred of the estimated 12,500 retail operators in the state last year have become licensed so far, according to industry officials.
In Mendocino County alone, as many as 75 percent of residents in some remote areas are marijuana growers, and only about 10 percent of the crop is being grown legally.
The issue has taken on a new level of importance as the multibillion-dollar California cannabis industry begins to ramp up. Legal growers and retailers want desperately to protect the regulated, taxed marijuana market in California.
The hope is that taxes collected by the government can fund law enforcement efforts, which will, in turn, deter illegal operations and generate additional taxes. Wholesale prices for marijuana are also expected to drop with the mainstreaming of the industry, providing less incentive for bad actors.
But so far that hasn’t worked. In all, California collected $60.9 million in excise, cultivation and sales taxes related to legal marijuana for the first three months of 2018.Gov. Jerry Brown’s January budget proposal predicted that $175 million would pour in over the first six months from the new taxes. That would have translated to $87.5 million in January, February and March.
In his updated budget plan released earlier this month, Brown proposed spending $14 million to create four investigative teams and one interdiction team to combat illegal activities, tax evasion and crime. The money would come from tax revenue and licensing fees over two years.
Even though marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, Scott said the U.S. Attorney’s office plans to focus only on illegal growers on public lands.
Becerra said that without the help of the federal government, California wouldn’t be able to handle the problem.
“You gotta make it so crime doesn’t pay,” he said.
Pay cuts for misbehavior and dozens of dismissals: Is Cal Fire's crackdown going too far?\
BY ADAM ASHTON
Firefighters can’t say they weren’t warned.
A new professional standards program at Cal Fire is giving the department a mechanism to hand down discipline in a consistent manner across the state for the first time in its history.
It’s racking up pay reductions, suspensions and dismissals at a rate that rivals scandal-plagued 2014 — the year when an instructor at its fire academy murdered his mistress and brought intense scrutiny on the department.
The program’s advocates say it is long overdue, but the sudden application of harsh discipline is surprising firefighters and raising concerns that Cal Fire is unnecessarily wasting its investment in employees it spent years training.
Take the crackdown on academy cadets last fall who at different times after hours had a drink at Amador County bars. Thirty-one of them were dismissed from their jobs and 12 more were suspended for not reporting on their peers.
“It’s crazy that the department is throwing these people away,” said Tim Edwards, the rank and file director for the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters. "Now we're heading into fire season with 43 fewer engineers. What do you think that's going to do?"
The department in the budget year that began in July has terminated 56 seasonal employees, the most since the 2014 academy scandal. Some of them regularly worked nine months in a year and earned about $100,000 in annual wages.
With two months to go in this state budget year, another 58 year-round firefighters have received notices of adverse action, with discipline ranging from temporary pay reductions to dismissal of veterans. That’s up from 33 in 2012 and 45 in 2013.
The department lobbied to create the new standards program after the 2014 homicide and received a $4.4 million budget boost from Gov. Jerry Brown to build it two years ago.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott has distributed annual code of conduct reminders describing the standards program, and the program’s director has been visiting fire stations around the state to answer questions about it.
The program is supposed to offer far more than a disciplinary process. It’s intended to give managers more training and to instill professional standards across a department with 7,000 employees.
So far, though, firefighters are mostly talking about the discipline and sharing tales about employees who got away with misconduct that today is no longer tolerated.
“Historically there was a lack of consistency with regard to how all of these processes worked. Discipline in the south could be different in the north,” said Monte Mason, the program’s director. “Individuals will be able to bring up past inconsistency. There, you got us, we’re guilty, but going forward, we’re looking for more consistency."
The Sacramento Bee reviewed 95 recent notices of adverse action that it obtained through a Public Records Act request to the State Personnel Board. It’s not a complete set of disciplinary actions because the personnel board does not keep the cases after 30 days unless the employee appeals his or her punishment.
Separately, four firefighters who were punished for drinking at the academy last fall shared details about their cases but asked to remain anonymous because they are appealing their dismissals and fear retaliation.
The records show that the department is expelling anyone who commits a serious crime or drinks alcohol during a shift. It’s also dismissing firefighters who investigators believe are misleading when confronted with lesser misconduct allegations.
"We have policies in place that address employee conduct including zero tolerance for drinking on duty. It's the public expectation that our firefighters be ready to respond at anytime while on duty and not be under the influence of alcohol," Pimlott said in a message he wrote to The Bee.
The dismissals include:
· Doyle Head, a fire captain with 23 years of experience, was disciplined because he didn't properly report a break he took that would have allowed him to drink alcohol at a May 2016 celebration honoring firefighters who participated in Lake County's deadly Valley Fire. On the night of the celebration, he also helped another firefighter leave an accident scene before reporting it to police, according to his notice of adverse action. Head reached a settlement that required him to resign, according to the State Personnel Board. Two higher-ranking officers received discipline because they were not aware that firefighters at one of their stations had taken a break that left the region understaffed.
· A high-ranking assistant chief who supervised law enforcement training at the Cal Fire Academy. Gabriel Santos was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in September 2014, five months after he was promoted to his post at the academy. Cal Fire believed he was evasive with the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over. Cal Fire officials also believe he was not forthcoming about conditions on his driver’s license in the following year. Cal Fire moved to dismiss him in April 2016. CalPERS records show he reached a settlement that compelled his resignation.
· Tim Gordon, a fire captain with 13 years of experience, was dismissed for disorderly conduct off duty. He and his family celebrated his daughter’s 21 st birthday in San Diego in May 2016. He and bar staff had an argument that escalated, and security placed him in handcuffs. The San Diego district attorney declined to prosecute him. He later reached an agreement that allowed him to return to work with a demotion.
One of the dismissed academy firefighters said he drank a beer after he passed all of his tests. He could have gone home that night but stayed in Amador County. He and his peers were considered graduates of the course, although they were scheduled to spend another workweek there.
The firefighter acknowledged he had the beer when the department opened its investigation, and lost his job, he said.
Another firefighter admitted having a drink one night midway through the academy.
“When I got a letter saying there was an investigation, I came forward and told them right off the bat. Right away, I was like I want to clarify, I did have that one shot, I made that bad choice,” the firefighter said.
Firefighters at the academy could be called to service in an emergency, but it’s unlikely. They’re not assigned to engines during their training. They're expected to remain sober and considered on-call for the duration of their training.
Generations of firefighters have attended bars in their down time at the academy, so much so that The Sacramento Bee in 2015 reported that firefighters were known to call ahead to ask certain bars to extend their hours.
That culture lingers, despite the high-profile crackdown on drinking that followed the scandals in 2014.
The firefighters disciplined recently "violated a code of conduct. They were briefed on it, and they violated it," said department Deputy Director Michael Mohler.
Some of the firefighters have hired attorneys and are appealing their discipline. Year-round firefighters will get help from their union.
“Does the union condone our members drinking on duty? Absolutely not,” said Edwards, the union leader. “But in this situation, they were finally going to be permanent personnel at the Department of Forestry, so they went out to celebrate.
“These guys spend six, seven, eight years training to get permanent at the department, and when you finally get the revelation that you finally made it, as a person, it’s understandable that you want to go out and celebrate that,” he said.
Seasonal firefighters have fewer appeal rights and are hiring private lawyers. Dan Thompson, an attorney at a Gold River law firm that often represents public safety employees, said he’s spoken with eight of the dismissed academy cadets.
"I am always skeptical of a public agency outright dismissing employees for an infraction, particularly if those employees are long-term employees with no prior discipline of significance and into whom the state has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in training," he said.
Cal Fire's union last month sent an appeal to its 6,000 members asking them to donate hours of personal leave to their labor officers because their representatives are spending so much time in disciplinary hearings. "It is unfortunate over the last few years the department has taken a more drastic approach with disciplinary actions, causing the need to use release time to represent our members," the message read.
"This one is a knee-jerk reaction from (the homicide scandal) four years ago, and we have to get over four years ago," Edwards said.
This article was updated on Tuesday, May 29 to reflect that Capt. Tim Gordon returned to work.
Judge orders Cal Fire to pay $30 million for ‘reprehensible conduct’ in Moonlight fire case
By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton
In a blistering ruling against Cal Fire, a judge in Plumas County has found the agency guilty of “egregious and reprehensible conduct” in its response to the 2007 Moonlight fire and ordered it to pay more than $30 million in penalties, legal fees and costs to Sierra Pacific Industries and others accused in a Cal Fire lawsuit of causing the fire.
The ruling is the latest twist in an epic legal battle that began not long after the fire erupted on Labor Day 2007, scorching more than 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties.
Sierra Pacific, the largest private landowner in California, was blamed by state and federal officials for the blaze, with a key report finding it was started by a spark from the blade of a bulldozer belonging to a company working under contract for Sierra Pacific.
But company officials have steadfastly denied responsibility and have accused the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service of conspiring to cover up their own shortcomings that allowed the fire to rage out of control.
Even after Sierra Pacific agreed to settle a federal lawsuit over the devastation in two national forests by paying $55 million in cash and handing over 22,500 acres of land to the government, the company insisted it was undone by an erroneous ruling of U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, and then was a victim of stonewalling by Cal Fire in that agency’s Plumas County suit, including the alleged withholding of thousands of pages of key internal documents relevant to the legal struggle.
In a 28-page order issued Tuesday, retired Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols essentially agreed with all of Sierra Pacific’s points, adopting a separate, 57-page order proposed by Sierra Pacific and the other defendants almost word-for-word, and excoriating the behavior of Cal Fire and two lawyers from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which represented the agency.
“The court finds that Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted,” the judge wrote. “Cal Fire failed to comply with discovery obligations, and its repeated failure was willful.”
The agency withheld documents for months, “destroyed evidence critical (to the case) and engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from (Sierra Pacific).”
After calculating defense attorneys’ fees and costs, Nichols, sitting on special assignment, said he was adjusting that total upward by a 1.2 multiplier to more than $30 million in a move to punish Cal Fire and state lawyers who represented it and to protect the integrity of the court. He also issued a terminating sanction; that is, he threw the lawsuit out as having little if any foundation.
“My clients are deeply gratified by the court’s decision, but I can add nothing to what the court has so clearly set forth in its own orders,” said Sacramento attorney William Warne who, with his colleague Michael Thomas, led the defense team.
Rick Linkert, attorney for a private forester and the owners of the land on which the fire started and where Sierra Pacific was conducting a timber harvest, added: “I am happy and relieved for my clients and that justice at long last has been accomplished.”
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said the agency “vigorously disputes many of the facts and legal findings in the orders. We are assessing our next steps, up to and including appeal.”
Cal Fire sought to recover $8 million spent fighting the fire from Sierra Pacific and others connected to the timber harvest on private property in Plumas County.
After Nichols, who retired from the Santa Clara Superior Court bench in 2009, found in July that Cal Fire had virtually nothing to back up its allegations, Sierra Pacific launched a massive legal counteroffensive that led to Tuesday’s withering ruling, which compared Cal Fire to disgraced former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, quoted Shakespeare and cited Albert Einstein’s theories.
“Time and again, the court found exaggeration and hyperbole in the papers submitted by Cal Fire,” Nichols wrote.
At one point, the judge noted that Sierra Pacific’s proposed order included the word “perjury” aimed at the agency, but Nichols said he was changing that to “false” because “perjury is a word most commonly used in a criminal law context.”
Nichols also had harsh criticism for the two state lawyers who handled the case for Cal Fire.
“The sense of disappointment and distress conveyed by the court is so palpable, because it recalls no instance in experience over 47 years as an advocate and as a judge, in which the conduct of the Attorney General so thoroughly departed from the high standard it represents and, in every other instance, has exemplified,” Nichols wrote.
While the record does not clearly establish the two lawyers “directed or advised the egregious and reprehensible conduct of” Cal Fire, “there is plenty of evidence to support a strong suspicion,” he wrote.
The judge made it clear he is only addressing “the statutory basis for sanctions,” and is “in no way speak(ing) to issues of legal ethics or compliance with the requirements of the State Bar Act,” which is a separate matter.
Harris’ office said officials were aware of the ruling but did not respond to a request for comment.
Sierra Pacific has maintained that Cal Fire seized upon a theory that the bulldozer started the fire and pinpointed the spot of origin within 48 hours of a U.S. Forest Service tower employee spotting it, a time period that would have allowed for little investigation.
The company also has said there is evidence the federal watcher in a lookout tower may have been smoking marijuana at a time the blaze was smoldering in its infancy, and defense lawyers had to work hard to pry that information out of the Forest Service. By the time the watcher saw it, there were flames in addition to smoke, the company contended.
Nichols’ ruling comes nearly seven years after the Moonlight fire, and the judge said he fully expects the issue to be appealed to a higher court.
Even after agreeing in 2012 to settle the federal lawsuit at a high cost in money and land, Sierra Pacific said it did so only because it believed the government was seeking $1 billion and Mueller had ruled a short time before that Sierra Pacific could be held legally liable even if it had nothing to do with starting the fire.
Cal Fire: Faulty PG&E tree clearance caused 3 Northern California wildfires
In the first results of its investigation into the firestorms that erupted across Northern California last October, Cal Fire said Friday that PG&E allegedly failed to remove or trim trees next to power lines that sparked three wildfires in Butte and Nevada counties last fall.
Cal Fire said its investigators found evidence in both counties that PG&E violated state code requiring utilities to maintain adequate clearance between power lines and vegetation.
PG&E said it looked forward to reviewing the findings. “Based on the information we have so far, we believe our overall programs met our state’s high standards,” the company said in a statement.
Cal Fire has not released the results of its investigation into the cause of the massive wildfires that exploded Oct. 8 in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The fires killed 40 people, destroyed almost 6,200 homes and triggered more than $9.5 billion in insured claims in the North Bay.
Friday’s announcement focused on four smaller fires that broke out Oct. 8 and 9 in rural Butte and Nevada counties, where they burned 9,390 acres and destroyed 134 structures. No one was injured or killed.
All four fires were caused by branches or trees that had fallen onto PG&E lines, Cal Fire said. In three of the fires, investigators found evidence the San Francisco utility violated state codes designed to prevent fires by keeping tree limbs clear from power lines. They include:
The Lobo fire in Nevada County, which broke out the night of Oct. 8 and burned 821 acres and destroyed 47 structures.
The McCourtney fire in Nevada County, which started on the evening of Oct. 8 and burned 76 acres and destroyed 13 structures.
The Honey fire in Butte County, which started in the early morning of Oct. 9 and burned 76 acres. No structures were destroyed in the blaze.
Cal Fire found no evidence of violations by PG&E in a fourth wildfire, the La Porte fire, which started in early Oct. 9 in Butte County. It burned 8,417 acres and destroyed 74 structures.
The findings were sent to the district attorney’s offices in Nevada and Butte counties for review as well to the California Public Utilities Commission, which could fine PG&E if it violated agency rules.
In addition, the company faces dozens of lawsuits seeking damages from residents who lost homes in the blazes as well as claims by local governments and insurance companies.
PG&E is lobbying the state Legislature to change state law that permits regulators to hold utilities liable for property damage and attorney fees when their equipment has been found to be the leading cause of a wildfire.
The four fires in Butte and Nevada counties were among more than 170 fires that broke out across Northern California last October, charring more than 245,000 acres. More than 11,000 firefighters from 17 states fought the blazes.
Attorney John Fiske, who represents Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in their litigation against PG&E, said in a statement that he believes the cause disclosed Friday for the four fires will be similar for the North Bay fires.
“The Cal Fire report confirms what we’ve known — that PG&E’s failure to follow the law, and failure to follow basic vegetation management practices, causes devastating wildfires,” Fiske said. “These utility caused wildfires are preventable when multibillion-dollar investor-owned utilities are managed responsibly. This report may be the first step towards rebuilding the communities affected by those fires.
PG&E said the October fires occurred following “an unprecedented confluence of weather-related conditions,” including a drought that killed millions of trees, followed by a record-setting wet winter that spurred the growth of vegetation and a hot summer that turned it into an tinder box that exploded during high winds.
The utility said it prunes or removes approximately 1.4 million trees annually and inspects every overhead electric transmission and distribution line each year.