The Latest: Wildfire investigators found PG&E broke law

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Latest on a wildfire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California (all times local):

5 p.m.

A Cal Fire official says investigators found PG&E violated utility law and forwarded their conclusions to the local district attorney to determine if criminal charges should be filed.

Cal Fire deputy director of communications Michael Mohler said Wednesday that he hasn’t read the report and doesn’t know the nature of the violations. The report was not made public. It was sent to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

Ramsey said in a statement that he and the California Attorney General’s office have been investigating PG&E’s role in the fire since November. He called the release of the report symbolic because it has been long known that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire.

He said determining whether a crime occurred is still an ongoing investigation and declined to comment on the status of the probe.

Ramsey considered criminally charging PG&E because its equipment caused three wildfires in close succession in October 2017.

Cal Fire’s investigators found evidence that PG&E violated a tree-trimming law requiring adequate clearance between trees and power lines. Ramsey said he could have charged PG&E with misdemeanors with a maximum fine of $1,000. Instead, he didn’t file criminal charges in exchange for PG&E paying $1.5 million to fund a fire-prevention program in Butte County.

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3:50 p.m.

An attorney representing 2,000 victims of a Northern California wildfire that killed 85 people says the handling of findings by investigators about the cause of the blaze indicates that Pacific Gas & Electric may have broken the law.

Cal Fire reported Wednesday that equipment owned and operated by PG&E sparked the Nov. 8 blaze that nearly decimated the town of Paradise.

The report was not released to the public, so further details about its content were unavailable.

Victims’ attorney Mike Danko said Cal Fire will normally release its reports publicly if it finds no laws were broken.

He said the agency referred its report to the Butte County district attorney’s office, suggesting Cal Fire likely has evidence that the utility was negligent on safety issues.

A call seeking comment from Butte County prosecutors was not immediately returned. A PG&E representative did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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3:35 p.m.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s chief executive told California lawmakers that he expected the utility would be blamed, but he was still disappointed that the company he heads caused the state’s most destructive wildfire last year.

CEO Bill Johnson was testifying before the California Assembly’s Utilities and Energy Committee when state fire authorities made their announcement. The committee was conducting an oversight hearing on PG&E’s management.

Johnson took over PG&E on May 1 after former CEO Geisha Williams stepped down and the utility replaced half of its 20-member board of directors.

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3:10 p.m.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones says she is not surprised to hear Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines sparked a November blaze that killed 85 people in her town and she hopes the findings help its legal case against the utility.

California fire authorities said Wednesday the utility’s power lines caused the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Jones says “it’s nice to have a definite answer” about the cause of the blaze that decimated the town.

Paradise sued PG&E in January seeking damages for the loss of infrastructure, land, property, trees, public and natural resources and lost taxpayer resources.

The suit alleges that the Nov. 8 blaze started when electrical infrastructure owned, operated and maintained by PG&E failed, causing a spark that ignited the blaze.

The suit also alleges that PG&E had planned to de-energize power lines as a precaution against starting a fire but canceled those plans despite windy conditions.

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2:35 p.m.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. shouldn’t get an extra six months to reorganize. 

The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January as it faced tens of billions of dollars in potential costs related to deadly California wildfires.

Its reorganization plan is due by the end of May, but the utility has requested an extension until November. 

In a Wednesday court filing, Newsom said the utility’s request continues to show it lacks an urgent focus on improving safety. He’s asking the court to instead grant an extension through August. 

Newsom and lawmakers are working on proposals around utility liability for wildfires that could affect the bankruptcy. 

California investigators on Wednesday found PG&E power lines were responsible for last year’s wildfire that killed 85 people. 

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2:15 p.m.

California fire authorities say Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines sparked the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Cal Fire said Wednesday the lines in the Pulga area ignited the Nov. 8 fire that killed 85 people in Paradise.

The investigation also identified a second nearby ignition site involving vegetation and electrical distribution lines, also owned and operated by the San Francisco-based utility.

The second fire was quickly consumed by the initial fire.

Lynsey Paulo, a spokeswoman for PG&E, did not immediately comment.

The fire in Butte County destroyed nearly 15,000 homes.

The nation’s largest utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January as it faced tens of billions of dollars in potential liability costs related to wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

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