Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday one of its employees spotted flames near a transmission tower close to the time and place the monstrous Camp Fire roared to life one month ago in Butte County.
In a letter to California utility regulators, PG&E said at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, an unnamed employee spotted a fire “in the vicinity” of a transmission tower near Camp Creek and Pulga roads. State fire officials have said the Camp Fire began around that time near those same cross streets.
The utility also provided its most detailed description yet of damage to that much-discussed transmission tower, and it disclosed for the first time it found bullet holes on a downed power pole at a second location.
About 15 minutes before the PG&E employee saw a fire, the transmission line there malfunctioned, the utility told regulators last month.
The fire spotted by the worker “was reported to 911 by PG&E employees,” wrote Meredith Allen, the utility’s senior director of regulatory relations, in the new letter to an official at California Public Utilities Commission.
The cause of the Camp Fire, which killed at least 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, is under investigation. But PG&E has been under intense public scrutiny since first reporting to regulators — without much detail — two cases of malfunctioning equipment. Allen’s letter provided fresh insights about those equipment problems.
At the transmission tower in the area of the fire’s origin point, PG&E saw via aerial patrol in the afternoon of Nov. 8 that a suspension insulator supporting a jumper had become separated from an arm on the tower, according to the letter. That description is similar to claims about the transmission tower made in a lawsuit filed against PG&E last week.
Subsequently, while assisting fire investigators on Nov. 14, PG&E spotted a broken hook attached to the separated suspension insulator, Allen’s letter said.
PG&E also saw a “flash mark” on the tower near the suspended jumper, along with damage to the jumper and insulator. At a nearby tower, an insulator hold-down anchor — which is not energized — was disconnected, PG&E said.
PG&E also divulged in the letter the nature of damage it found on a separate distribution line, which is where the utility had reported a second malfunction not long after the Camp Fire started.
A PG&E employee patrolling the area Nov. 9 found a power pole and other equipment on the ground with “bullets and bullet holes at the break point of the pole and on the equipment,” Allen’s letter said. Three days later, PG&E found downed wires and damaged and down poles on the same distribution line, along with “several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires,” the letter said.
In its public statement announcing the letter late Tuesday, PG&E said the “loss of life, homes and businesses in the Camp Fire is truly devastating.”
“Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety, restoring electric and gas service where possible, and helping customers begin to recover and rebuild,” the statement said. “Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to further reduce the risk of wildfire.”
PG&E also stressed that the incidents are still being investigated and the information it provided remains preliminary.
“The causes may not be fully understood until additional information is available, including information that can only be obtained through examination and testing of the equipment” that Cal Fire has retained, PG&E said. PG&E is cooperating with Cal Fire’s investigation.
The utility also announced this week a series of additional wildfire safety measures it is undertaking, including inspections of 50,000 transmission structures in high fire threat areas. PG&E is also adding new weather stations and fire-watching cameras, among other efforts.
PG&E: Worker reported flames near power equipment at Camp Fire origin site, by J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2018.