PG&E Adds Details on Possible Cause of California’s Camp Fire

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The northern California wildfire known as the Camp Fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 homes and other buildings. The fire, which started on November 8, raged over more than 150,000 acres before being contained a week after Thanksgiving Day.

PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG) said just days after the fire started that it had experienced an outage on a 115-kV transmission line in the area of the Camp Fire. A week later the company acknowledged a second incident on November 8 on a 12,000-volt distribution line. In a letter sent to the state’s public utility commission Wednesday, the company added details on the two incidents.

This is how the company described the damage to the 115,000-volt transmission line:

[An aerial patrol on November 8 identified] a suspension insulator supporting a transposition jumper had separated from an arm on the tower. The suspension insulator and the transposition jumper remained suspended above the ground. … [On November 14] PG&E observed a broken C-hook attached to the separated suspension insulator that had connected the suspension insulator to a tower arm, along with wear at the connection point. In addition, PG&E observed a flash mark … near where the transposition jumper was suspended and damage to the transposition jumper and suspension insulator.

Here’s how PG&E described the damage to the 12,000-volt distribution line:

[On November 9, a PG&E employee] observed [a] pole and other equipment on the ground with bullets and bullet holes at the break point of the pole and on the equipment. [On November 12, another PG&E employee] observed wires down and damaged and downed poles [at the second location]. [The employee also] observed several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires [within the footprint of the Camp Fire].

In a November SEC filing, PG&E noted:

While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, if the Utility’s equipment is determined to be the cause, the Utility could be subject to significant liability in excess of insurance coverage that would be expected to have a material impact on PG&E Corporation’s and the Utility’s financial condition, results of operations, liquidity, and cash flows.

The company’s stock price has dropped about 50% since the Camp Fire started, but today’s report has given shares a boost of about 2%. The reaction is almost certainly due to the report that spells out the damage to PG&E. While the cause of the damage to the 115,000-volt transmission line is not specified, it is conceivable that the damage was human-caused. If that’s the case, PG&E’s liability could drop significantly, and some investors are apparently buying low now in the hope of selling high later.