Bill and Aileen Charamuga said in September they believed they knew exactly where the Butte Fire started: Under a power line that crosses their property on Charamuga Ranch in Amador County.
Cal Fire’s incident investigator Gianni Muschetto went to the same area the day the Butte Fire broke out, Sept. 9, 2015, near Charamuga Ranch and Butte Mountain roads, east of Jackson.
The blaze killed two residents, horrified thousands, scorched more than 110 square miles of watersheds, and destroyed 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial structures.
On Thursday, more than seven months after the Butte Fire changed the lives of residents in multiple communities across Calaveras County, Cal Fire confirmed the Charamugas’ suspicions, as well as suggestions made by utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric on Sept. 16:
Contact between a live tree and PG&E power line sparked the Butte Fire.
State health and safety code allows Cal Fire to seek recovery of costs incurred battling wildfires determined to be sparked due to negligence or violations of law. The state agency intends to bill the utility giant more than $90 million for firefighting costs, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said Thursday.
Calaveras County’s elected board of supervisors chimed in after Cal Fire’s announcement, stating they intend to hold PG&E accountable for “hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.”
Saying Cal Fire’s investigation showed the utility is guilty of causing the 2015 Butte Fire, Calaveras County officials also said they will seek a separate investigation, penalty and fines from the California Public Utilities Commission “for PG&E’s responsibility for the fire’s devastation and damage.”
Named in Cal Fire’s Butte Incident investigation report are Pacific Gas & Electric Company and two PG&E contractors, ACRT Inc. and Trees Inc. People at PG&E responded to requests for comment Thursday. Representatives for ACRT Inc. and Trees Inc. could not be reached.
Cal Fire investigators have submitted the Butte Fire investigation report to district attorneys in Amador and Calaveras counties for review. The report begins with two pages of public resources and health and safety code violations that resulted in the start of the Butte Fire.
Muschetto said in his report he determined the cause of the Butte Fire was a Gray Pine that touched a PG&E power line conductor, which ignited portions of the tree.
“Burning embers from this contact with the conductor dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor, igniting the wildland fire which burned uncontrolled onto numerous properties not owned or controlled by PG&E in violation of PRC 4421,” Muschetto said.
Muschetto also said he determined PG&E and/or its sub-contractors, ACRT and Trees Inc., did power line vegetation management inspections and maintenance in 2014 and 2015 in the same area.
In October 2014, the utility and/or its contractors identified two gray pines and removed them in January 2015 from the edge of a pine stand on the north side of the power line conductor identified in the general origin area for the Butte Fire.
“The removal of these two pines exposed the interior trees, including the gray pine” that caught fire Sept. 9, Muschetto said in his report. “These now exposed trees were left open to the south, towards the path of the sun and the power lines.”
Failing to identify the potential hazard of leaving weaker, inherently unstable trees on the edge of the stand, without maintaining them, ultimately led to the failure of the gray pine, which contacted the power line conductor operated by PG&E, and ignited the Butte Fire, Muschetto’s report stated.
PG&E officials publicly stated “a live tree may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point” on Sept. 16.
The utility issued two statements Thursday. The second statement said that based on preliminary review, “we accept the report’s finding that a tree made contact with a power line, but we do not believe it is clear what caused the tree to fail or that vegetation management practices fell short.”
The utility said it monitors about 50 million trees a year and it trims or removes more than one million trees annually. PG&E officials touted their vegetation management program as among the best in their industry.
“The fire burned for 22 days and spread into Calaveras County before the blaze was fully contained at 70,868 acres,” Cal Fire officials said in an announcement distributed Thursday.
“The fire became the seventh most destructive wildfire in California’s history,” Cal Fire officials said.
More than 4,500 firefighters were assigned to the blaze at its peak. Resources included 519 fire engines, 18 helicopters, eight air tankers, 92 hand crews, 115 bulldozers, and 60 water tanker trucks.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the individuals who lost their homes in the Butte Fire,” PG&E officials said in a statement. “We are reviewing Cal Fire’s report in its entirety.”
The statement also said the company will do the right thing for its customers and respond to the various lawsuits filed against it.
PG&E, ACRT and Trees Inc. have been named in multiple lawsuits seeking damages on behalf of residents who lost everything in the Butte Fire, including the family of 82-year-old Owen Goldsmith.
Goldsmith stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order and died on his Mountain Ranch property during the blaze.
The other resident who died in the Butte Fire was identified as Mark McCloud, 65, of Baker Riley Way.
Asked specifically if anyone with the utility could say if Butte Fire costs will be passed along to all PG&E customers, a PG&E spokesperson provided no new information and instead referred back to the statement.
Total damage caused by the Butte Fire to Calaveras County and its residents has been estimated at more than $1 billion, and it could be much higher, staff with the Board of Supervisors said Thursday.
“We are shocked and dismayed by the extent of PG&E’s negligence and will actively seek justice for Calaveras County and its citizens,” Cliff Edson, chair of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors, said in a distributed statement.
“We will work tirelessly to secure rightful compensation for the county and our residents who are still grieving from the loss of loved ones, their livelihoods, homes, belongings and mementos, and all destroyed and taken from them because of PG&E’s carelessness and negligence.”
The Board of Supervisors holds PG&E management and executives responsible for what happened in Calaveras County, Edson said.
“PG&E continues to raise our citizens’ utility rates at an alarming level,” Edson said. “But the company is also cutting risk management and safety expenditures at the same time. What does that say about their ‘commitment to safety’? What does PG&E have to say to the people of Calaveras County today?”
Many Calaveras County residents still complain about residual complications from smoke inhalation and physical injuries from the fire, Edson said.
Efforts to clear debris in the wake of the fire have taken months “due to treacherous conditions and dangerous terrain,” county staff said. Calaveras County sent teams of experts in to clean affected areas as a free service for residents, adding to costs of the disaster.
The utility giant has already begun offering $50,000 checks to victims without insurance, according to county staff.
That money “only touches on PG&E’s liability for the irreparable harm it’s caused” to residents, county staff said.
“Some residents have left our community and are not rebuilding because of the fire,” Edson said. “It has not only changed their lives forever. It has changed our community forever.”
He said millions in tax dollars, property tax income, and other revenues have been lost.
It is the utility’s responsibility “to make this right,” Edson said.