The Story Behind the California Wildfires – PG&E Whistleblowers Post
[Post Updated February 2019] I spent a weekend in October 2017 in the Napa Valley. From Santa Rosa to Calistoga, the only talk was of the fires. Tourism will return, the wine still flows but for thousands of Californians, their lives were permanently altered by the fires.
What can we learn from these deadly fires? How do we prevent them from happening again? And can we hold someone accountable for the lives lost and dreams destroyed? The answers to some of these questions are held by PG&E whistleblowers (Pacific Gas & Electric).
And its not just PG&E that has been targeted for starting fires. Lax line maintenance and dry weather is a recipe for disaster anywhere.
When I originally wrote this post, I wrote the words “How do we prevent these fires from happening again.” And just a year later I found myself adding new content after the 2018 fire season was even worse than the year prior. In 2018, the fires claimed at least 88 more lives and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
The Tragedy Unfolds
During my October 2017 trip, I traveled up in the hills and watched as firefighters continued to knock down the last smoldering hotspots, talked to linemen and met with some folks directly affected by the tragedy.
On Saturday (October 21st) in the hills just outside Santa Rosa and Napa, the smoke was still visible and the smell everywhere. Dozens of firefighters from all over the country continued to knock down stubborn little fires that kept rekindling. First responders still were going door to door sifting through destroyed homes looking for the bodies of the missing.
The death count from that two week fire storm stood at forty two when I first wrote this post but several people hadn’t yet been heard from. Everyone hoped they simply weren’t answering their phones or maybe lost their phones to the flames.
But as the days dragged on, concerned family members and friends called rescuers who had the grim task of sifting through the ruble looking for charred remains. The fires were so hot that dental records are the only method of identifying those who are found.
I met Bob at the V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena. A seemingly happy guy, Bob is the manager of the winery’s wine tasting room. He laughs and jokes with customers but privately, he shared the terror of he and his wife fleeing their home as hurricane force winds pushed the fires rapidly to their home. Within minutes, his home was destroyed.
He, his wife and an elderly tenant that lived in a guest house made it out alive. Several of his neighbors did not. As he relives that vivid memory, the smile quickly fades. Everything that he worked so hard for is gone. The fire spread so swiftly that neither he nor his wife had time to grab photo albums or family heirlooms.
On Sunday morning in Napa I met a couple who appeared to be in their 70’s. They were staying at the Napa Winery Inn. The lobby of the hotel had a sign thanking first responders. But for this couple, they didn’t have much to be thankful for.
Fortunately, they had more time to evacuate and could load their aging Suburban with clothes and important papers. But while at the hotel, they learned their home was destroyed. They are still too numb to know what to do or where to go or even how to get help. To look at them is to look at despair and defeat.
On Monday, I spoke with several linemen in Calistoga. They looked like soldiers back from a long battle. Evidently, they have been working round the clock for days trying to restore power and replace hundreds of burned power poles and melted insulators and burned transformers.
One of the linemen remarked that this tragedy was largely preventable. That seems to be the mood of the local populace too. Careless smokers will toss lit cigarettes out windows, homeowners and campers will ignore burn bans and even mother nature can get in the act when lighting strikes dry tinder. But everyone suspects the Napa and Sonoma fires were caused by PG&E.
2018 Woolsey and Camp Fires – Paradise Lost
Fast forward a year and we are now just starting to sort out the causes of the newest fires. These blazes more deadly than the last. And if PG&E doesn’t immediately do a better job of line maintenance, the next fires could be worse.
The Woolsey and Camp Fires were the two biggest and most destructive but California suffered 7,983 other wildfires that year — and the year wasn’t over when this count was given!
The Woolsey and Camp fires alone destroyed 18,000 structures and killed at least 88 people (dozens remain unaccounted for). An entire town of 26,000 people, many who were retirees, was wiped off the map.
What caused these fires? Cal Fire, insurance company investigators and the courts will likely sort that one out. We note, however, that Cal Fire has determined that 17 of the last 21 major fires in Northern California were caused by faulty lines and equipment belonging to PG&E.
Pacific Gas & Electric has said it will start pre-emptively turning off power in certain wind and dryness conditions but that isn’t a fix. Only proper line maintenance and rigorous inspections will solve the problem.
We can’t control a drought. Selective power disruption speaks to symptoms but not the cause of the fires. The answer is better line maintenance and inspections but that costs money.
Already PG&E is under intense scrutiny for the Camp fire and Southern California Edison for the Woolsey fire. The Guardian reports that both companies told the California Public Utilities Commission that they suffered “equipment issues… in the areas close to where the fires ignited, in the moments before flames began to spread.”
PG&E issued a statement saying,
“Our hearts continue to be with the communities impacted by the Camp Fire. The loss of life and property is staggering. Right now, our primary focus is on supporting the communities and assisting first responders as they work to contain the fire. We are also getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access, so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers.
In a separate statement, the company said, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve.
The utility has pledged to work with regulators and Cal Fire to determine the cause of the fires. It already on a criminal probation after a jury convicted the utility of causing the deadly San Bruno gas explosion. The company did not appeal the conviction.
Follow the Money!
PG&E says it is doing everything it can to take prevent fires but that is a lie.
The company paid $4.5 billion in dividends to shareholders over the last five years. All of that money that could have gone for better line maintenance.
In January, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ripped into lawyers for the utility. He asked how he could possibly ignore the fact that PG&E was “killing more people [and] starting more fires.”
As to the billions in profits the company racked up in recent years, Judge Alsup said, “Some of that money could have been used to trim those trees and cut those trees. It’s not enough to come in here and say, ‘Judge, we’re trying to mitigate it, too.’ That’s just platitudes.”
With another fire season just around the corner, the court said there was no time for more studies. He doesn’t want the utility to be responsible for a single fire in 2019.
That may be asking a lot since the company is now in bankruptcy.
PG&E – Just Checking the Boxes?
There is plenty of criticism and finger pointing now that thousands of homes have been destroyed. (More on that below.) A California Administrative Law Judge expressed concern about PG&E’s safety efforts just two weeks before the fire.
Judge Peter Allen expressed concerns on October 25th when he said, “While in general we are encouraged by PG&E’s responsiveness to the (audit), we continue to have concerns about whether PG&E is truly changing its culture, or is just trying to ‘check the boxes.'” Allen made his comments in the context of PG&E’s safety efforts after the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline blast.
History of Major Fires in California
As I write this, the death toll from the two big 2018 fires fires stands at 42. 8,400 homes, businesses and other structures destroyed. 246,000 acres burned. That only 42 people died is a miracle.
California has a long history of wildfires and as urban populations push into the hills and global warming means more droughts, more tragic fires are likely to follow.
The state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, investigates every deadly blaze. According to their investigations, electrical lines cause just 8% of fires. The biggest causes are debris burning (14%), and lightning (11%). 23% are never determined.
The four major fires that burned in 2017 in the wine country area of California were the Tubbs, Atlas, Patrick and the Nunns fires. All started within a few minutes of one another. Early investigations are suggesting faulty PG&E electric transmission lines.
Investigators believe the Atlas fire began on Atlas Peak Road just outside Napa. A homeowner reported losing power at 9:30 pm on October 8th. The power came back on but shortly thereafter a deadly fire was bearing down on his home. The homeowners made it out alive but their 98 year old neighbors who lived across the street perished.
The fire may have been caused by wind knocking down wires or a tree falling on a wire.
The Tubbs fire near Calistoga was first reported at 9:45, also on October 8th. Investigators aren’t saying yet what might have sparked that blaze. Fueled by hurricane force winds, the Tubbs fire raced into nearby Santa Rosa and burned entire suburban neighborhoods.
The Nunns fire was reported at 10:00 pm. It would claim the life of an out-of-state fire fighter who rushed to California to aid in the firefighting efforts. Investigators again appear to be focused on downed power lines.
The final major fire, the Patrick fire, was the last of the four to be reported that night. Once again, investigators are focusing on downed power lines.
We checked meteorological records for October 8th. Heavy winds were reported throughout Sonoma and Napa Counties. Some say that local gusts reached hurricane force. The state’s public utility regulators require lines be built to withstand those winds.
Was wind a factor in the beginnings of each of these blazes? We will have to wait for Cal Fire’s final report but we suspect the answer is yes. Everyone agrees that the winds that night caused the fires to spread so rapidly. By the times the winds died down and fire fighters from around the world began pouring in, the fires were simply too big to contain. (We say all over the world as Australia sent a wildfire crew to help California firefighters.)
Even if wind was a factor, PG&E should have insured that their lines could withstand those winds and be clear of brush and tree limbs.
PG&E is no stranger to controversy. The company just got done settling claims related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline failure, a failure that caused a wall of fire “1000 feet tall” in a residential neighborhood.
Eight people died in that tragedy. The company paid $1.6 billion to settle claims with the California Public Utilities Commission. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted the company on criminal charges including obstruction of justice for lying to federal investigators. In January of this year, the company was fined $3 million.
The regulatory and criminal actions are in addition to an estimated 70 lawsuits filed against the company. PG&E was blasted when they tried to blame the dead victims and homeowners who lost their homes.
Two years ago, the Public Utility Commission was deeply critical of PG&E’s line maintenance operations in Sonoma County. Some of the problems included vegetation growing on poles or too close to overhead wires.
One California state senator is already calling for the breakup of the utility if Cal Fire determines it is responsible for the deadly blazes. Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. Jerry Hill (D- San Mateo) said, “If we find that in this particular case — and we don’t know the cause yet — then frankly I don’t think PG&E should do business in California anymore. They’ve crossed the line too many times. They need to be dissolved in some way, split.”
That remark was made after the 2017 fires. Senator Hill may have had his wish granted now that PG&E has filed bankruptcy.
The estimates of the damages from the most recent 2018 fires are difficult to estimate. Insurance companies can rebuild houses but a home is much more than four walls and a roof. It is dreams, memories, cherished photos… And valuing the 42 people who lost their lives? No one can estimate that.
After the 2017 fires PG&E is promised to spend $450 million to trim vegetation. It is needed and appreciated but too late. And can they really do a good job of making sure the vegetation is off the lines?
Pacific Gas & Electric relies on their own crews and contractors to trim vegetation. The company, however, is responsible for inspecting the lines and making sure they are safe. With tens of thousands of miles of line and 4.2 million poles, the company has just 18 people to handle those inspections. That alone is negligence in our opinion.
The mere fact that even more lives were lost and more homes destroyed in 2018 shows that PG&E’s promises were empty.
So what did the company say? In 2017, then PG&E CEO Geisha Williams tried to say all the right things. The company’s website said, “We have been part of these communities for more than 100 years. These people are our friends and neighbors, and we are devastated by what they are going through. We will work shoulder to shoulder with them to restore and rebuild what’s been lost, for as long as it takes.”
Did the company really do everything it could? In our opinion, no. Actions speak louder than words. And the 2018 fires are proof.
What did PG&E offer its customers who lost their homes in 2017? According to the company’s website, “If your home was [d]estroyed in the wildfires, you will be billed only through October 7, 2017, the day before wildfires started.”
That statement shows a callousness that even we find hard to believe. If this is the response of the company, we fully expect that they will again be accused of lying to investigators and will again try to blame home owners for dying in what should be the safety of their own homes.
Speaking of actions speaking louder than words, just two days before 2017 fires began, PG&E opposed new safety measures to prevent future fires. Media company Quartz says, “According to a PG&E statement in July, parts of the [safety] initiative would ‘add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.’ Now, after years of opposing the new safety rules, PG&E’s lines are prime suspects in this month’s wildfires.”
PG&E – A “Threat to Public Safety”
In the aftermath of the 2018 fires, dozens of lawsuits have been filed. Of particular note is an interesting one filed in Butte County Superior Court.
That lawsuit accuses PG&E of spending $50 million on advertising to improve its public image instead of maintaining its equipment and reducing the danger of future fires.
The lawsuit labels PG&E as “threat to public safety” and seeks to halt the false advertising that claims to place “the safety of its customers
and operations first.”
Although the lawsuit doesn’t do anything for the tens of thousands of people suffering in the aftermath of the fire, it should shine a light on PG&E’s distorted thought process and broken corporate culture.
2019 Update. It’s a new year and PG&E just announced that their CEO, Geisha Williams announced she was stepping down. She made $8.6 million last year and unknown more in stock options and other perks. The company’s senior vice president for electric operations also stepped down. Two more senior executives suddenly decided to retire.
Those moves will help the optics but will they lead to change? It may not even matter.
The California Public Utilities Commission is considering breaking up the utility.
Why? The Wall Street Journal reported that the company “sparked” 1500 fires, more than one a day in recent years. And its liabilities now are three times its market value.
What does that mean for Californians? Either rate payers will pay the difference meaning the price of electricity will surge so hight that many people won’t be able to afford to have electricity or the people who lost everything will get pennies on the dollar. Neither option is very palatable.
While the State of California and the courts figure out how to clean up this mess, we continue to look for whistleblowers. And not just in California.
As we supplement this post yet again, new headlines today are suggesting that PG&E may now seek bankruptcy protection. That could slow down new safety efforts even more meaning even worse fires next year. California can’t afford it and her citizens deserve better.
Our mission is simple, clean up these companies before tens of thousands of homes are lost, dozens of lives lost and families thrown into upheaval. Keep reading to see what you can do.
Call for PG&E Whistleblowers
We believe that folks within an organization often have the best information about why things go wrong and would should have been done. We want to know what the company knew about wildfire dangers and prevention efforts. In this case, that means PG&E employees and consultants.
Most law firms seek clients. The client calls the law firm, the lawyers investigate and if they believe their client has a case, they file a lawsuit if the claim can’t be amicable resolved. Already, dozens of lawsuits have been filed and we suspect that over the coming years, thousands more lawsuits will be filed.
Unfortunately, the lawyers fighting these battles are fighting well funded defense lawyers and a giant public utility well skilled at the legal game of “hide and seek.” Despite PG&E’s ham fisted attempts to blame homeowners and victims in the San Bruno gas explosion, everyone knew that a major pipeline failed and PG&E was to blame. In the wine country fires, we expect Pacific Gas & Electric will blame Mother Nature, God, homeowners and even firefighters. Proving responsibility will be more difficult.
That’s where we come in.
MahanyLaw is a different type of law firm. We are not seeking clients who lost loved ones or their homes or their businesses. [If you are looking for counsel, we have excellent California law firm partners who can bring those claims.] We are looking for PG&E whistleblowers.
PG&E whistleblowers? Yes! We investigate cases from the inside out. We are not looking to be the first lawyers to file lawsuits. And certainly, not lawyers you will see on TV looking for fire victims.
We want people who know the story behind the story. People who know where the smoking gun emails are and know whose server to subpoena and image. In short, we are looking for PG&E whistleblowers.
Google “utility companies that cause fires” and Pacific Gas & Electric certainly dominates the news. They are not alone, however.
Two minutes before the massive Woolsey fire (2018) began, Southern California Edison notified the state that a relay on one of their high voltage lines had tripped. It is probably no coincidence that Cal Fire says the location of that relay was the same location as the origin of the fire.
And the problem isn’t confined to California. A study by Texas A&M University in 2014 found that utility lines caused 4000 fires in 3 and one half year period!
What does all this mean? Our search for utility company whistleblowers isn’t limited to PG&E and Southern California Edison.
From helping taxpayers get back $16.6 billion from Bank of America to fighting big banks and financial service companies like Freedom Mortgage and Ocwen, we have a unique method of investigating cases and bringing justice to victims. Our goal this time is simple. Lets get to the truth of how these deadly wildfires could have been prevented and make sure they don’t happen again. To do that, we need utility company whistleblowers to step forward. They have the answers.
Will you help us? PG&E whistleblowers can remain behind the scenes if necessary. They may be able to serve as non-testifying experts witnesses. Talk to us. Your information will remain confidential unless we have your permission and even then, it will only be used in ways you authorize. Even if you just send us internal documents anonymously, your help is appreciated.
As I write this tonight, I think about the older couple at the Napa Winery Inn. Right now, they have little hope. We want to offer those folks hope and get them back on their feet and make sure that other families do not have to suffer again.
Not every wildfire is preventable. We agree with the linemen we spoke with, however. The 2017 and 2018 California wildfires were preventable. Whether laziness or a big utility putting people before profits, much more could have been done to stop this disaster from happening.
If nothing else, the company should be ashamed of itself for blocking safety efforts just days before the fire and now for offering to not charge homeowners for a full month of service if their house burned down. A company’s culture isn’t determined by the lineman and front line workers. It is decided by the C-suiters and lobbyists. It’s time for real accountability.
Interested in becoming a whistleblower? Your community and we could certainly use several PG&E whistleblowers. Give me a call at (414) 704-6731 (direct), online or by email at Your community, conscience and neighbors will appreciate it even if you remain behind the scenes.
2019 PG&E Whistleblower Post Update:
While PG&E sorts through it bankruptcy filing and claims it is working with the public utilities commission and CalFire, we think a more sinister effort is afloat. Although publicly claiming to cooperate, the company and other utilities are actively lobbying for legislation that would shield them from liability when their lines accidentally ignite a blaze
A grass roots lobbying effort called Up From The Ashes is fighting back. A veteran Sacramento lobbyist is leading those efforts, Patrick McCallum. Ironically, he is one of the folks who lost his home. In fact, he and his wife barely escaped the fire and had to flea on foot.
Surprisingly, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents 11,500 PG&E workers, is siding with the company.
No one knows yet what will happen to the many lawsuits. It is too early to tell. But we renew our call for PG&E whistleblowers to step forward. Someone out there knows what really happened and whether the company knew it wasn’t doing all that it should to prevent these wildfires.
A Final Plea & Reminder – Utility Whistleblowers Still Needed
Unlike other law firms, we investigate cases from the inside out. That means finding insiders that have copies of critical memos or know where to look. We have no doubt that many of the current fires in Northern California were caused by faulty electrical equipment and lax maintenance standards. We ask ourselves every day, how many more people must lose their life, their home, their business or their livelihood? Worse, this is all driven by PG&E’s drive for profits and dividends for its shareholders.
If you are a homeowner, business owner or lost a loved one, you may be entitled to substantial monetary damages. PG&E whistleblowers? There may not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you but you will have the peace of mind of knowing that dozens of men, women and children didn’t lose their lives in vain. We want to insure this never happens again and shining a light on corporate greed is one of the best methods to do that.
Think you can help us? Your community and we could certainly use several PG&E whistleblowers. Give me a call at (414) 704-6731 (direct), online or by email at Even if you remain behind the scenes, your help can really make a difference.
More important updates to this story can be found here! Also follow the link for our newest post on How to File a Wildfire Lawsuit Claim and Maximize your Recovery.
Disclaimer – Any legal services performed in California is always done with local counsel.
NOTE: The San Francisco Chronicle has done a fabulous job of covering the fires. Their images of the fire are like no others.