After Assessing The Damage, California Fire Officials Looking Into Who Is At Fault For Wildfires

Nov 7, 2017
Originally published on January 16, 2018 3:13 pm
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It could be months before California figures out what caused more than a dozen wildfires in the counties north of San Francisco, including Napa and Sonoma. Those fires killed 43 people, destroyed thousands of homes and did more than $3 billion in damage.

Marisa Lagos of member station KQED reports on concerns that a utility company could be to blame. And if it is, who's going to pay?

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: As firefighters rushed to save residents from last month's fast-moving blazes, reports poured in of damage to Pacific Gas and Electric Company's equipment. Dispatchers repeatedly sent first responders out to deal with downed power lines.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've got major damage to a power pole. We're going to need PG&E.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We have power lines down.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hazardous condition - electrical power lines down.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Power lines arcing - no fire.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Live power line is rolling over the street right here. We just...

LAGOS: California fire officials haven't determined what caused the fires. But already, more than a hundred fire victims have filed suit against PG&E, claiming the utility's negligence is to blame. Nemesio Ruiz and others suing PG&E say the utility didn't do enough maintenance work to clear trees and bushes from the path of power lines.

NEMESIO RUIZ: It was very scary, so we had to leave it.

LAGOS: Ruiz and his family lost their entire home.

RUIZ: When we came back, everything was gone.

LAGOS: If California fire officials find PG&E liable - and that's still a big if - the question is, who will foot the bill? Power and gas companies in California have been found at fault for earlier fires and explosions. And in many of those instances, companies have asked to pass along those costs to ratepayers through their power bills. Thomas Long, a lawyer with the consumer group The Utility Reform Network says that's not how it should work.

THOMAS LONG: You broke it. You pay for it.

LAGOS: Long and other consumer advocates say if power companies cause a fire, shareholders should foot the bill out of their profits. PG&E was found at fault for a deadly 2010 gas line explosion, and state regulators prevented the company from passing those related costs along to consumers. In the wake of that decision, the California Legislature codified that prohibition into law for gas but not electricity.

LONG: And the point is to make the utilities accountable for their mismanagement. When utilities mismanage their facilities and operations, they cannot force their customers to pay for the damage that results.

LAGOS: PG&E officials refused an interview request for this story. But in a call with investors last week, CEO Geisha Williams said the company spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year maintaining its equipment. And she noted the unusually high winds and dry conditions when the Northern California blazes sparked.

GEISHA WILLIAMS: This was an extraordinary confluence of events. And right now it's simply too early to make an assumption about liability.

LAGOS: A group of Democratic lawmakers from the region where the fires hit say it isn't too early to think about protecting consumers. One of them is State Senator Scott Wiener.

SCOTT WIENER: But we know that this is an issue that goes well beyond the North Bay fires or PG&E. And we need to make sure that utilities have a strong incentive to maintain their poles and wires well and to trim back the foliage that, you know, is around it.

LAGOS: Weiner plans to introduce a bill when lawmakers return to session in January that will prevent electric companies from passing on costs from wildfires to customers if they're at fault for the blaze. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.