Sagging Power Lines Ignited Deadly Cascade Fire, Officials Say

YUBA COUNTY -- California fire officials say two sagging Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines made contact and ignited a blaze last year that killed four people and injured a firefighter.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Tuesday strong winds caused the lines to touch, creating an electrical arc that sent molten material onto dry vegetation below.

The blaze in Yuba County that started on Oct. 8, 2017, scorched 15 square miles and destroyed 264 structures. Four people lost their lives.

After his home was destroyed in the Cascade Fire, Loma Rica resident Jim DeGraff rebuilt and made some fire safety changes to his property, cutting down dozens of old shade trees.

"I’d much rather not have shade than have the tree over my house anymore," DeGraff said.

It has been a year since the wind-driven fire caused hundreds to flee their Yuba County homes with no notice.

It was one of several wildfires that swept through Northern California that month, killing 44 people and destroying more than 5,000 homes. State officials say insured damages alone topped $9 billion.

Those memories continue to haunt some in the area.

"It was coincidental that actually the investigators were able to release the cause," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Mohler. "The timing, unfortunately, right on the anniversary. But we owe it to the public to get that cause out as quickly as possible."

For DeGraff and others, PG&E power lines have been a known cause ever since the fire. But pointing a finger now, DeGraff says, is just a waste of time.

"We all knew that there but they’re not negligent," DeGraff said. "There’s nothing nobody could’ve done that night to stop what happened, as far as I’m concerned."

PG&E is facing dozens of lawsuits from insurers that have spent billions of dollars settling claims from homeowners.

The utility company provided a statement later Tuesday:

The safety of our customers, their families and the communities we serve is our most important job. Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is heartbreaking and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild.

As independent experts have confirmed, extreme weather, years of drought, and millions of dead trees are feeding an unprecedented risk of wildfires. In light of this, we recognize we all need to do even more to help reduce the risk of wildfires, and are committed to working together with our state and community partners to develop comprehensive safety solutions for the future.  

We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the CAL FIRE report to understand the agency’s perspectives.

In the meantime, we are continuing to focus on implementing additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire threats, such as working to remove and reduce dangerous vegetation, improving weather forecasting, upgrading emergency response warnings, making lines and poles stronger in high fire threat areas and taking other actions to make our system, and our customers and communities, even safer in the face of a growing wildfire threat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.