Utility contacted woman about power line problems day before deadly wildfire, report says

The Pacific Gas & Electric utility company told a Northern California woman that power lines were causing sparks on her property the day before the deadliest blaze in the Golden State's history destroyed the nearby town of Paradise, The Associated Press reported Monday.

The so-called Camp Fire started Thursday near property belonging to Betsy Ann Cowley in the tiny town of Pulga, just east of Paradise. At least 42 people have died as a result of the wildfire and dozens more have been reported missing.

On Monday, fire investigators declared the area surrounding power lines on Cowley's property, in an oak-filled canyon, a crime scene. Security guards would not let PG&E inspectors pass.

Cowley told the AP that she was on vacation Wednesday when she got a surprise email from PG&E saying that crews needed to come to her property to work on the high-power lines. She said the utility told her "they were having problems with sparks," adding that workers visited her property but she said she wasn't there Wednesday and was not aware of their findings.

PG&E has previously disclosed that it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the fire minutes before the blaze broke out. In a Friday filing to California's Public Utilities Commission, it said it had detected an outage on an electrical transmission line near the site of the blaze. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.

The AP reported that the area where fire officials said the Camp Fire started and where PG&E says sparks were detected on Cowley's property is roughly the same.

The utility told AP it has provided an "initial electric incident report" with state regulators and will fully cooperate with any investigations.

PG&E had announced before the blaze started that it might shut down power in nine counties, including Butte County where Pulga and Paradise are, because of extreme fire danger. But it never did. On Thursday, the company said it had decided against a power cut because weather conditions did not warrant it.

This is not the first time PG&E's management practices have come under question in the drought-stricken state.

In 2014, regulators ordered the state's investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting and removing dead and sick trees near their power lines, warning that "climate change has facilitated and exacerbated numerous wildfires" that have damaged and threatened their facilities.

But after a wildfire killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and scorched 70,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills the following year, homeowners and their attorneys questioned whether PG&E had done enough to clear dry trees flanking its power lines. In 2016, Cal Fire ultimately found PG&E was responsible for that fire after tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line.

Investigators have determined that PG&E equipment started several of the 2017 wildfires in Northern California wine country that killed 44 people. The company says it expects to pay more than $2.5 billion.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Redwood City Democrat and longtime critic of the utility, called the report of troubles on PG&E's lines in the area extremely worrisome.

"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 said. "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."

California utility regulators are working with CalFire staff on their own, separate investigation into whether PG&E complied with state rules and regulations in areas that were torched in the fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.