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California's Largest Utility Caused The State's Deadliest And Most Destructive Wildfire, Officials Say

The wildfire killed 85 people in November, nearly leveling the town of Paradise in Northern California and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless.

Last updated on May 15, 2019, at 6:08 p.m. ET

Posted on May 15, 2019, at 5:23 p.m. ET

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp fire in Paradise, California, Feb. 11, 2019.

Fire officials have determined that California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, is responsible for sparking the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Six months after the Camp fire tore through Butte County in Northern California, nearly leveling the town of Paradise, Cal Fire investigators confirmed Wednesday, "after a very meticulous and thorough investigation," what had all but been conceded: PG&E electrical transmission lines in the nearby community of Pulga sparked the blaze.

In February, PG&E acknowledged that it believed its equipment "will be determined to be an ignition point" for the blaze, which killed 85 people, torched 153,000 acres, and destroyed more than 18,000 homes, businesses, and other buildings. Three firefighters were also injured.

The company said in a statement Wednesday night that it accepted Cal Fire's determination and remains focused on supporting survivors through the recovery and rebuilding process.

State fire investigators have already determined that PG&E's equipment has started about 17 wildfires, some of which were deadly, over the past few years.

The beleaguered utility, which has declared bankruptcy because of the massive, mounting costs from wildfires, has been bolstering its fire prevention and protection programs over the past year. Last October, the company announced that it would preemptively shut off power to thousands of residents when fire conditions worsen, calling it "a new normal." PG&E has also pledged about $100 million toward helping fire-ravaged communities recover.

On the morning of Nov. 8, bone-dry vegetation, strong winds, and warm weather propelled the Camp fire into neighboring towns so fast that first responders and firefighters barely had time to react. Residents were forced to abandon cars and flee on foot as flames consumed the roads behind them.

"The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E," Cal Fire said in a news release Wednesday. "This fire was consumed by the original fire which started earlier near Pulga."

However, PG&E contends that it has not been able to determine whether it was also responsible for that second blaze, as Cal Fire said, and has not yet seen the final report.

Barbara Munker/picture-alliance/dpa / AP Images

Donna Williams sits in the middle of the ruins of the apartment house where she lived for 19 years in Paradise, Dec. 19, 2018.

In 2018, more than 7,571 wildfires burned over 1.8 million acres within the state of California, according to Cal Fire.

Along with a slew of Camp fire survivors, hundreds of fire victims in the state have filed lawsuits against the utility, accusing it of negligently and irresponsibly letting its equipment age and get too close to dry brush and vegetation near many vulnerable communities.

Anticipating the financial damage, PG&E announced in January that it was seeking bankruptcy protection as it faces an estimated $30 billion in liabilities. The utility's customer base includes about 40% of households and businesses in the state.

Cal Fire said that it sent its report to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who said Wednesday that his office was still investigating "how and why" the PG&E transmission line failed" and whether the company or any of its personnel "have any criminal liability."

PG&E's new CEO, William Johnson, was speaking before the California Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy Wednesday when the outcome of Cal Fire's investigation was announced. He said that while the company is "in survival mode," and vowed to reform the utility.

"It's a disappointment," Johnson said of the official determination. "Let's not do it again."

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