PG&E Offers New Details on Tower at Heart of Camp Fire Probe

(Bloomberg) -- On the day California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire started, PG&E Corp. workers saw damage and flames near one of the utility’s transmission towers, now the focus of investigations and lawsuits as a possible ignition point.

The company said in a letter Tuesday to the California Public Utilities Commission that an employee observed fire near the tower at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, three minutes before the official start time of the blaze. The line had tripped offline at 6:15 a.m., the company said.

PG&E has been under intense scrutiny over whether its equipment sparked the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and leveled the town of Paradise in Northern California. The company has lost almost 47 percent of its market value in the weeks since amid investor concern that the San Francisco-based utility could face billions in liabilities. The fire’s cause has not been determined.

PG&E Offers New Details on Tower at Heart of Camp Fire Probe

In the letter to regulators, the company also said that on the afternoon of Nov. 8, an aerial patrol noticed an insulator had separated from an arm on the transmission tower near where the fire began, along its Caribou-Palermo high-voltage line in Butte County.

“If there was much doubt to start with, PG&E (PCG) seems to confirm multiple possible linkages between their transmission line equipment and the devastating Camp Fire,” Height Securities LLC analysts Katie Bays and Clayton Allen wrote in a research note Wednesday.

PG&E Offers New Details on Tower at Heart of Camp Fire Probe

‘Flash Mark’

Additionally, workers on Nov. 14 discovered a broken “C-hook” attached to the insulation of the same tower with “wear” at the connection point, according to the company’s letter. PG&E also observed a “flash mark” on the tower. Coordinates near that tower, identified as Tower :27/222, had earlier been identified as the likely origin of the fire by state investigators.

PG&E assisted investigators with the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection in collecting equipment from the site, the utility said. The steel tower received a full inspection in 2014 and a less-detailed visual inspection in September, Paul Doherty, a PG&E spokesman, said Wednesday. He did not know, however, if those two inspections found any problems with the tower.

A lawsuit filed last week in San Francisco County Superior Court alleges that an insulator on one of the company’s towers failed, allowing an uninsulated cable to dangle free and hit the tower.

“Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp Fire,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint.

PG&E also said in the Dec. 11 letter that a worker noticed a downed pole on Nov. 9, riddled with bullet holes at the break point. It lay near where the utility reported a second power failure shortly after the fire started. Later, workers also observed several snapped trees on top of downed wires near that location, which is the second possible ignition point identified by investigators.

PG&E shares rose 2.2 percent at 11:28 a.m. Wednesday in New York.

The company’s equipment has already been blamed for causing 17 of last year’s devastating wine country fires, which killed 44 people. Investigators accused it of violating state law in 11 of those incidents.

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