The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) made its first official announcement last week that 12 big Northern California wildfires in October 2017 were caused by problems associated with electric utility power lines.
Cal Fire named the 170 Northern California fires that burned at least 245,000 acres, caused 100,000 evacuations, incinerated 8,900 homes, and killed 46 people during 2017 the “Fire Siege.”
Despite the valiant efforts of over 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia, the California Insurance Commissioner estimated the losses during October at over $10 billion, with about $5 billion paid in insurance payouts by January 2018.
The Cal Fire investigation concluded that 12 Wildfires in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake, and Napa Counties were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) “power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles.”
With Cal Fire investigators finding alleged violations of California State Law, eight of the 12 fires — including Sulphur, Blue, Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe, Pocket and Atlas — have been referred to the appropriate county District Attorney’s offices for civil and potentially criminal review.
PG&E stock (NYSE: PCG) was only down by less than one percent over the weekend to $42.20 a share. But the stock has plunged from about $70 a share in early October, for a market capitalization loss of about $$35 billion.
PG&E acknowledged in November, in a series of SEC regulatory filings, that the company has about $800 million of liability insurance to cover potential losses from Northern California fires. The company later disclosed that the California Public Utilities Commission had ruled against recapturing the losses through higher utility rates to consumers.
The size of the financial losses to PG&E from the 2017 Fire Siege far exceeds the $1.6 billion cost to the company of the fatal 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, which was the largest loss in the company’s 113-year history.
PG&E is already cranking up an effort to make the Wine Country counties of Sonoma and Santa Rosa share the blame for the financial losses due to government agency “actions and inactions” in responding to the disaster, according to a local NBC News report.
PG&E’s claim points to evidence of government “inadequacy” for urban planning, water supply infrastructure, and vegetation clearance enforcement. A report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Emergency Services found major gaps in Sonoma county’s alert system, which led to “duplication, inconsistency and some confusion in messages transmitted to the public.”
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