PG&E says cause of Camp Fire not yet determined despite probe

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[December 12, 2018]  By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) released a new report on Tuesday into a massive California wildfire that ignited near one of its damaged towers, offering new details of the incident but stopping short of accepting blame.

The Camp Fire broke out on the morning of Nov. 8 near the Northern California mountain community of Paradise, sweeping through the town and killing 86 people in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office announced late on Tuesday that a man who was severely burned while trying to put out the fire that engulfed his car had died from his injuries.

The cause of the blaze has remained officially under investigation for more than a month, though suspicions turned to PG&E within days of the outbreak when the utility reported to regulators that it experienced equipment problems near the origin of the fire around the time it began.

In its supplemental report to the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E says that one of its transmission lines suffered an outage at about 6:15 a.m. PST (1300 GMT), and 15 minutes later an employee saw a fire near the tower.

The subsequent investigation discovered a broken piece of equipment and a "flash mark" on a transmission line tower.

"These incidents remain under investigation and this information is preliminary," PG&E said in the report.

"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 retained by (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)," the utility said, adding that it was cooperating in that investigation.

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PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

The first lawsuit on behalf of victims was filed against PG&E on Nov. 14, accusing the company of negligence and health and safety code violations.

The lawsuit specifically cited an alleged decision by the utility not to proceed with plans to shut down its power lines as a precaution due to high winds in the forecast just before the blaze erupted.

The utility's stock value plunged after PG&E warned investors last month that it could face liability in excess of its insurance coverage if its equipment were found to have sparked the Camp Fire.

Three people remain missing from the conflagration, which was fully contained on Nov. 25 after nearly obliterating the town of Paradise, located about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco and home to roughly 27,000 people.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Rich McKay; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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