Aptos firefighters at the Freedom Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cal Fire investigating downed wires as ‘potential origin’ of Freedom Fire, PG&E report says

A day after Cal Fire cited embers from the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August as the cause of most of the unusual Santa Cruz County wildfires in January, Lookout has learned that one major fire has been under investigation as potentially being caused by a downed PG&E power line.

After the 37-acre Freedom Fire sparked near Watsonville last month, PG&E disclosed Monday that its crews observed downed power lines near the fire that officials were investigating as a possible cause.

The Freedom Fire, which burned near Freedom Boulevard and Hames Road, east of Aptos, was part of a rash of unseasonal wildfires that sparked Jan. 19 as extreme winds whipped the flames into a frenzy. The Freedom Fire led to the temporary evacuation of 100 nearby homes.

PG&E crews that same day observed wires down near Freedom Boulevard, north of Pleasant Valley Road in Aptos, according to a preliminary Electric Incident Report the company filed Jan. 20 through the California Public Utilities Commission.

Electric utilities have to file such reports when electric incidents meet certain criteria, including significant media coverage, among other things. PG&E disclosed the report’s existence to Lookout on Monday in response to questions about the Freedom Fire and other blazes.

“The wires down were in the area of the Freedom Fire which started earlier in the day and as reported by Cal Fire was approximately 40 acres and has been fully contained,” the utility wrote in its EIR. “PG&E later became aware that Cal Fire was investigating the wires down as a potential origin of the Freedom Fire.”

PG&E reported the incident under the media criteria “due to public attention into the Freedom Fire,” according to the EIR.

Other factors that, if met, trigger the need to file an electric incident report include a fatality or injury involving electric facilities, damage to property of the utility or others in excess of $50,000 or a major outage to at least 10 percent of the utility’s entire service territory.

“PG&E is not aware of any injuries, fatalities, or property damage exceeding $50,000 related to the Freedom Fire,” the company wrote in the report. “This information is preliminary.”

A Cal Fire spokeswoman said in an email to Lookout Monday that the January fires are still under investigation and that the agency does not comment on fires while investigations are ongoing.

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Nate Armstrong said in a video posted Sunday morning that embers from the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August sparked most of the 20 fires that burned in and around Santa Cruz County last month. However, he did not provide probable causes for the Freedom Fire or a few other smaller fires.

A PG&E spokeswoman said in an email to Lookout Monday that the company “will not speculate on the cause” and is cooperating with Cal Fire’s investigation.

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After the blazes sparked last month and power outages spread, PG&E’s infrastructure and decision-making were once again in the spotlight.

Unlike during strong winds in the fall, the utility did not call for a Public Safety Power Shutoff in Santa Cruz County the week of the fires, saying afterward that it evaluated the situation and the criteria for a preemptive shutoff were not met.

“We are only using PSPS events as a last resort when the weather forecast is so severe that people’s safety, lives, homes and businesses may be in danger of significant wildfires,” PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado wrote in the Monday email to Lookout. “In 2021, PG&E will continue carefully reviewing a combination of factors when deciding if power must be turned off.”

Those factors include low humidity levels, a forecast of high winds and real-time ground observations from its crews, among other things.

In the wake of the fires, Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor Zach Friend called PG&E’s decision-making on public safety shutoffs “opaque” and said there had been an “information void.”

Tostado said the utility is “working closely with officials to better coordinate, share information and manage PSPS events and wildfire safety more effectively.”

That effort, among other things, includes web-based wildfire safety working sessions with tribes and counties, quarterly meetings with local stakeholders and PSPS planning exercises.

“Before, during and after every PSPS event, we gather feedback from customers, local, state and tribal officials and wildfire safety experts to identify ways we can improve,” Tostado wrote. “Part of our work to improve has included creating a secure data PSPS Portal to share event-specific information with cities, counties, tribes, agencies and emergency responders before, during and after a PSPS event.”