In memory of the 84 deceased victims of Pacific Gas and Electric's (PG&E) criminal Camp Fire.
During the early morning hours of Thursday, November 8, 2018, the CA Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Captain in charge of the Jarbo Gap station in the Feather River Canyon could hear the "Jarbo Winds" as they were known locally begin to howl as he got up to fix breakfast for his crew. As he fixed that breakfast he started to hear what he thought was rain begin to hit the roof and sides of the fire station. He started to look outside when the wind took the door from his hand. He discovered it wasn't rain he was hearing, but pine needles from the surrounding forest forcibly pelting the outside of the station. He went back inside to continue fixing breakfast, but was interrupted as the station's dispatch radio feed went off alerting him to a possible fire in the Canyon.
The Cal Fire crew immediately rolled out of the station up Highway 70 and the Canyon, past the small enclave of Pulga and up river to the Poe Dam. Arriving above PG&E's Poe Dam just before sunrise, the Captain and crew saw the beginnings of a conflagration under the PG&E high voltage power line on the ridge top across the river from them. The sight sent a chill through the Captain and crew because they could see the fire was already exploding toward the south and west riding the Jarbo Winds, which were so high the Captain struggled to remain upright. The Captain radioed into his headquarters with urgency in his voice - his crew would never be able to get in front of this fire to control it and in a prophetic understatement he told dispatchers: "This has the potential of a major incident."
In less than an hour, the fire had torn through Pulga and the mountain hamlet of Concow and reached the eastern outskirts of Paradise - throwing softball-sized embers ahead to the north into Magalia and over the town into the Butte Creek Canyon on the west side. Paradise and its residents were hit from three side by massive walls of fire. Chaos and confusion reigned. Thousands of homes and businesses were lost in the matter of a couple of hours. A town of some 26,000 people was utterly destroyed.
84 souls were lost in the most horrific way imaginable - burned to death.
Origins of Fire
Within a few hours of the fire, Cal Fire arson investigators began to make their way to where the responding Captain had seen the start of the fire. Traveling up Camp Creek Road (from which the Camp Fire took its quirky name), the investigators came to what appeared to be the fire's beginning. The ground under what was PG&E's transmission tower Number 27/222 showed clear signs of the fire's beginning and a burnt path toward the southwest. Looking up, the investigators saw a detached line hanging down into the steel superstructure of the high-voltage transmission tower.
Something had broken - and sent the live 115 kilovolt (kV) power line (also known as a conductor) to arc against the steel tower and shower molten steel and aluminum metal onto the grass and brush below. A painstakingly detailed arson investigation began.
Within a few hours, the Cal Fire investigators had begun to reach their preliminary conclusions that the Camp Fire was started by the failure of a suspension hook holding up an insulator string which in turn held up the highly energized line. The investigators had found the broken iron hook, also known as a "C hook", and it appeared to have not just broken, but had worn through after a great deal of time hanging in the windy environs of the Feather River Canyon.
The investigators reached out to the Butte County District Attorney's (DA) Office on November 9, 2020 and discussed their initial findings with the office - including their concern that a PG&E helicopter had been seen hovering above the suspect tower.
The Butte County District Attorney's Office had had past dealings with PG&E and its criminal violations of failing to clear vegetation from its lines which sparked fires. The office also knew PG&E was a federal felon for its criminal actions leading to the San Bruno gas line explosion.
A directive was given the Cal Fire arson investigators that the DA's Office was opening a joint investigation with them and to treat the fire origin site as a crime scene and to prevent anyone, including PG&E, from entering. (The Cal Fire investigators had already started the process of securing the scene with private security.) And so began the Camp Fire Investigation...
Camp Fire Investigation
The next week Cal Fire arson investigators directed PG&E linemen under their close scrutiny to begin the dismantling of tower 27/222 and seized relevant portions for evidence. Later, Butte County District Attorney investigators teamed with Cal Fire arson investigators to examine other power lines in the vicinity of the suspect tower. Evidence from those surrounding towers was seized with the assistance of experienced linemen from PG&E under the close scrutiny of a loaned Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Evidence Team.
Prosecutors were taken from normal day-to-day business in the office and assigned to oversee the investigation. Thus began the arduous task of gathering information from PG&E and others to determine the who, what, how and why of the Camp Fire.
Early into the investigation it became clear that as we began to collect terabytes of data from a facially cooperative PG&E that more broad based and intrusive subpoenas would be needed to dig out data from the extensive PG&E files including its vendor files. Additionally as PG&E witnesses, past and present, were being contacted for interviews, we found PG&E has hired attorneys to represent them and encourage silence.
We partnered with the California Attorney General who assigned experienced prosecutors to assist in the investigation and it was decided a special investigative criminal grand jury should be sworn to subpoena evidence and examine reluctant witnesses under oath. This grand jury was in addition to the regular "watchdog grand jury" that is sworn in every June in Butte County. This special grand jury of 19 ordinary Butte County citizens was selected from 100 summoned potential jurors and sworn in on March 25, 2019.
As an investigatory grand jury, it was the duty of the jurors to sift through all the evidence, hear the witnesses and keep an open mind as to whether there truly was any criminal liability on the part of anyone for causing the Camp Fire. This dedicated group of citizens then meet in secrecy for the next year and heard nearly 100 witnesses, reviewed approximately 1600 exhibits, and produced some 6000 pages of transcript. It cannot be overemphasized the patience and sacrifice of these citizens, meeting once to twice a week for almost a year. And since they were sworn to secrecy, they were not even able to tell their employers, friends and family what they were so diligently working on. Even more amazing was their dedication to their important work to seek justice. Such was their dedication that only three grand jurors were unable to finish their term.
The remaining 16, after their months of hard work and review of all matters, returned an Indictment finding sufficient evidence to charge the Pacific Gas and Electric Company with 85 felony counts - one count of unlawfully and recklessly causing the Camp Fire as a result of its gross negligence in maintaining its power line, and 84 individual counts of involuntary manslaughter naming each of the persons directly killed in the Camp Fire by PG&E's criminal negligence. The Indictment also included three special allegations for PG&E's causing great bodily injury to a firefighter; causing great bodily injury to more than one surviving victim; and causing multiple structures to burn (listed as approximately 18,804 structures). (See attached Indictment (PDF).)
PG&E, who had been represented by criminal defense attorneys during the investigation and Grand Jury proceedings, was informed of the Indictment and decided to plead guilty "as charged" to all counts - thereby agreeing the evidence of its criminal negligence has been established beyond a reasonable doubt.
The following Camp Fire Public Report is a summary of the massive undertaking to determine if there was sufficient evidence to convict PG&E of its criminal behavior which lead to the Camp Fire and the awful destruction that followed. The Report also forms the core of legal documents filed with the Butte County Superior Court today to establish the Factual Basis for the pleas by PG&E to the Indictment and the People's Statement in Aggravation for the sentencing of the defendant corporation.
View the Full Investigation Report (PDF).