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article imageCal Fire: Butte Fire report, $90 Million and 2 lives lost

By Gar Swaffar     Apr 30, 2016 in Environment
Jackson - The ultimate cause and the consequent blame for the Butte Fire in California late last year has been detailed in a report from Cal Fire.
Cal Fire has released the final investigation report on the cause of the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras Counties last year. Digital Journal reported on the Butte Fire which started on September 9, 2015 and was declared officially contained 22 days later after burning 70,868 acres. 591 homes were lost, two citizens died, while 368 outbuildings and four businesses were destroyed.
The report from Cal Fire places the blame squarely on the shoulders and share holders of Pacific Gas & Electric Company. The cause of the fire is listed in the Cal Fire Investigation report as a tree coming in contact with a power line in the area of Butte Mountain Road near Jackson, California.
The report is a very detailed account of the Cal Fire investigator, Gianni Muschetto, who arrived on scene roughly 14 minutes after the fire was reported at 2:26 p.m. on September 9, 2015. The investigation details the responsibility of PG&E, plus ACRT Inc. and Trees Inc. who provide vegetation management services under contract to PG&E.
Muschetto was tasked with finding the cause and documenting the site of origin of the fire. The final cause as determined by both Muschetto and Arborist Michael Mahoney was the removal of two Gray Pines to the north of a three conductor high voltage power line. The removal of the two Gray Pines on the edge of a stand of Gray Pines allowed significantly more sunlight to the interior trees in the stand which were not able to withstand the extra solar exposure.
One of the interior Gray Pines in the stand of trees succumbed to both the drought conditions and increased solar exposure and as a consequence, the tree failed and fell against the northernmost high voltage conductor. In contacting the line and skidding along for approximately 20 feet,, portions of the trunk and two limbs caught fire and dropped into the fine fuels below the power line.
Photos of the area taken by Muschetto tell the story, along with the investigative evidence which was collected at the scene of origin. Photo 9 of 166 shows the culprit pine in relation to the power line and photo 12 of 166 shows the stem of the tree which came into contact with the power line.
Interestingly, photos 17-20 of 166 show the discoloration on the power line which the Gray Pine came in contact with. It's also interesting to note that the power line didn't fail, nor was it taken down by the 44 foot tree, but simply ignited a small portion of the tree to start a fire which ultimately cost $90 million to suppress, and reportedly caused several hundred million dollars damage, primarily in Calaveras County.
Calaveras County is reportedly in the process, along with numerous individuals and groups of individuals in bringing lawsuits against PG&E, Trees Inc. and ACRT Inc (also a vegetation management company).
PG&E has made an official response to the cal Fire report which can be found here.
Under California law Health and Safety Code 13009 as noted on page 2 of the report, PG&E and the two vegetation management companies appear to be fully liable for the suppression costs of the Butte fire.
PG&E will undoubtedly create another 'study' and produce another report which shows how hard they try to manage the thousands of miles of power transmission lines they own, however, the cost of non-compliance is not counted solely in dollars and cents. The final cost of the fire may be very difficult to determine, although ultimately, the two lives lost will be irreplaceable.
In further reading the investigation report (page 22), it should be noted that on Sept 12, three days after the fire was started, a security detail was provided at the scene of origin to safeguard all of the on scene evidence. Paladin Security arrived at approximately 12:10 PM on September 12.
Within less than an hour after the lead investigator left the scene that day, three PG&E representatives who had been on scene earlier in the day went back to the scene of origin. They were told they would not be allowed to enter the scene of the investigation within the flagged area.
On the same day two more PG&E representatives tried to access the scene at 7:00 PM that evening. They also were turned back, the names of those two PG&E representatives were not given in the report. IT is unclear if the two individuals offered identification to the Security Officer on scene.
More about PG&E, Butte fire, cal fire, Wildfire, wildland fire
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