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PG&E knew about "problems with sparks" that may have set off killer California wildfire

NBC News logo NBC News 11/13/2018 Erik Sherman
CalFire firefighter Scott Wit surveys burnt out vehicles near a fallen power line on the side of the road after the Camp fire tore through the area in Paradise, California on Nov. 10, 2018. © Josh Edelson CalFire firefighter Scott Wit surveys burnt out vehicles near a fallen power line on the side of the road after the Camp fire tore through the area in Paradise, California on Nov. 10, 2018.

The day before California's deadly Camp Fire started, with 42 victims and more than 200 missing so far, Pacific Gas & Electric knew of an electrical problem that may have set off the blaze.

The day before the fire began, PG&E reportedly emailed a local landowner about "problems with sparks" and the need for workers to enter her property and work on the high-power lines.

Betsy Ann Cowley owns Pulga, a renovated former railroad town that is rented out for corporate retreats and private functions. She was away on vacation when an email arrived.

Neighboring town Paradise was destroyed by the fire.

"I’ve continuously tried to get in touch with [transmission line workers] but nobody is in charge and they suck at communication," Cowley told Bay Area News Group, noting that PG&E has ignored the power lines for years.

State officials have not yet determined a cause of the fire. However, an alert sent to state regulators and radio transmissions reviewed by Bay Area News Group suggest that a transmission line malfunction might have caused sparks that set off the blaze.

If officials conclude that sparks from PG&E equipment were the cause, the company could face massive lawsuits. In addition to the loss of life and missing persons, as of yesterday the fire had burned 117,000 acres, destroyed 6,453 residences and 260 commercial buildings, and threatened another 15,500, according to state authorities.

PG&E declined to discuss the email, saying it filed an "initial electric incident report" with state regulators. In a court filing on Friday, the company reportedly said it had detected a problem on a transmission line 15 minutes before the first report of the Camp Fire.

On Tuesday last week, the day before sending the email to Cowley, PG&E began informing 70,000 customers in Northern California about potential power blackouts due to "extreme fire danger conditions." The areas included Butte County, where Pulga and Paradise are located. The National Weather Service had also issued fire hazard warnings.

On Thursday, the day of the fire, the company said it would not proceed with the blackouts "as weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure."

The utility has faced criticism and law suits over their part in previous large fires. State Sen. Jerry Hill of Redwood City has been a long-time critic of PG&E.

"If PG&E is found responsible for burning down the state again, at some point we have to say enough is enough and we have to ask should this company be allowed to do business in California?" Hill told AP. "These fires take a spark, and at least in the last few years fires have been caused by negligent behavior by PG&E. We need to see how we can hold them responsible, or look at alternative way of doing business."

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