Cal Fire: PG&E to blame for 2010 Bodega fire
By RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Bodega area PG&E power line with a history of breaking was the cause of a September 2010 fire that burned 100 acres,
state fire officials said Tuesday.
Cal Fire is demanding that PG&E pay the cost of fighting the fire, about $400,000, said Eric Hoffmann, division chief of Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.
The finding 18 months after the blaze, which was one of the largest fires in Sonoma County that year, has prompted PG&E to begin settling claims with fire victims.
See more photos from the 2010 Bodega fire here
It also bolsters a lawsuit against PG&E by injured Bodega volunteer firefighter Ben Hakala, 36. He was pulling a hose in heavy smoke when he came in contact with the downed 12,000-volt line, suffering severe burns to his feet and ankles that hospitalized him for weeks.
PG&E officials declined to comment on the downed wire Tuesday except to say the company had received the report from Cal Fire and are reviewing it.
The utility company is still finalizing its internal investigation into the fire’s cause, said spokeswoman Brittany McKannay.
PG&E officials, however, already have begun settling claims with area residents, who lost barns, fencing and in one home that burned, furniture and other personal belongings.
Area residents and firefighters had speculated since the first day that the electrical line was to blame.
“I’m glad to know what I thought from the beginning is what really happened,” said Tracie Crayne, whose mobile home was partly burned by the fire.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Hoffmann said the state agency had to tackle the fire investigation in painstaking detail because of the firefighter’s injury and potential litigation.
Cal Fire headquarters had yet to finalize a report about Hakala’s injuries completed by a Serious Accident Review Team.
“You have to make sure you’ve addressed everything. Ultimately you’re going to present this report to the AG’s (Attorney General’s) office, if you’re going to go for civil costs,” Hoffmann said.
The state sent the document, called a “letter of demand,” to PG&E in May, alerting the utility company it had determined the fire was caused by the power line.
The fire started that Saturday afternoon on the edge of Rick Karcher’s 300-acre cattle ranch on Highway 1.
The first flames broke out underneath a broken power line, which had previously broken at least four times, according to fire officials, property owners and Hakala’s lawsuit.
The flames jumped Highway 1 and raced up a steep, long hillside, scorching land on the Hagemann and Albini ranches.
It topped a hill leading down into the community of Bodega, prompting fear of an evacuation. About 300 firefighters from Cal Fire, local agencies and neighboring counties held the flames to the west side of the hill.
The PG&E line had repeatedly been spliced back together prior to the fire. Within hours of the fire, a PG&E crew was replacing the line with a thicker, sturdier line.
Crayne, who was renting a mobile home on property near the fire’s origin, lost part of her home, clothing and numerous personal items. She said she’s currently working with PG&E on a settlement.
Rick Karcher, who lost 4,000 feet of cattle fencing and other property, said he settled with PG&E in May.
“I’m totally done,” said Karcher. “They negotiated with me and I got paid already.”
Hakala’s suit contends the power line had a history of breaking and that it started the fire, resulting in his injuries. Sonoma County joined the lawsuit in 2011, facing a worker’s compensation claim by the injured firefighter.
The suit remains in early discovery stages and is far from going to court, said Sonoma County Counsel Debbie Latham.
Hakala’s attorney was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Along with the investigation into the cause, Cal Fire also was investigating what happened to Hakala. That report remains with Sacramento Cal Fire officials for final approval, said Hoffmann.