LOS ANGELES — California regulatory authorities are investigating if the state’s largest utility providers were in compliance after the companies reported failures in their electrical equipment just moments before deadly fires erupted last week in Northern and Southern California.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is still investigating the cause of the fires but the self-reported outages correspond very closely to the time and location of both the Camp and Woolsey fires that have ravaged the state over the last week.
According to an electric safety incident report submitted by Southern California Edison, a circuit outage occurred very close to the starting point of the Woolsey fire last Thursday.
“Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m.,” the report states. Two minutes later, at 2:24pm, the Woolsey fire began.
The outage, according to the report, was submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) “out of an abundance of caution as it may meet the subject of significant public attention or media coverage reporting requirement.”
The Woolsey fire, which has burned more than 93,000 acres and is 30% contained as of Monday night, has displaced more than 200,000 residents and continues to threaten communities as high winds fan flames.
A spokesperson for SoCal Edison told BuzzFeed News the utility company has been in communication with the CPUC “with respect to these fires and has submitted an initial electric safety incident report on the Woolsey Fire reporting an outage in the vicinity.”
“The information in the report is preliminary,” the statement continued. “There has been no determination of origin or cause of either wildfire and [SoCal Edison] will fully cooperate with any investigations.”
A similar report was submitted to the CPUC by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) about an “outage” moments before the Camp fire — which has become the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history — was first reported in Butte County in Northern California.
“On November 8, 2018, at approximately 0615 hours, PG&E experienced an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line in Butte County,” the report stated. According to Cal Fire, the blaze began 18 minutes later.
The report said damage to a transmission tower "in the area of the Camp Fire" was observed by aerial patrol "approximately one mile north-east of the town of Pulga."
According to the Mercury News, firefighters were dispatched to a fire "under the high tension power lines" across the Feather River from Poe Dam, which is roughly a mile northeast of Pulga.
“'We’ve got eyes on the vegetation fire. It’s going to be very difficult to access, Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible,'” one firefighter told dispatch, the newspaper reported based on radio calls. “It is on the west side of the river underneath the transmission lines.”
A PG&E spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the information provided in the CPUC report “is preliminary and PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations,” adding that "the cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined.”
The Associated Press reported that a day before the fire was sparked, PG&E emailed Betsy Ann Cowley asking if utility workers could come and repair power lines that ran through her property because "they were having problems with sparks."
Cowley said workers visited her property, which is located on or near the site where the fire is believed to have started, but she was unaware of their work or findings because she was out of town at the time.
Fire investigators have declared the area on Cowley’s property a crime scene, according to the AP, and security guards would reportedly not let PG&E inspectors on the premises.
After dozens of people were killed in wildfires sparked by downed power lines, utility companies have begun intentionally shutting off power to communities ahead of high wind events to prevent wildfires. PG&E was contemplating such a move just hours before the deadly Camp fire started.
“PG&E continues to closely monitor weather ahead of a possible Public Safety Power Shutoff,” the utility company tweeted at 1:45am. The intentional outage would have included Paradise, California, a town of just over 26,000 that was destroyed in the Camp fire, which is now blamed for 42 fatalities.
When asked what would have triggered a power shutoff, a spokesperson for PG&E said it would “only be done as a last resort during the most extreme fire danger conditions” and that “no single factor” would trigger the shutoff. A decision would be based on a “combination of many criteria” which include wind speed, humidity levels, and temperature, among other factors.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve,” the spokesperson said. “Our hearts are with the communities impacted by the Camp fire. The loss of life and property is staggering.”