Episode 825: Who Started The Wildfire? : Planet Money After a wildfire, teams of investigators start combing the wreckage for clues. Finding the cause means, maybe, finding someone to pay. But where's the line between a natural disaster and a human one?
NPR logo Episode 825: Who Started The Wildfire?

Episode 825: Who Started The Wildfire?

Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images
Firefighter points their beam lights around a burnt area to check for damages.
Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images

Note: This episode originally ran in 2018.

Wildfires aren't like other natural disasters. You can't trace a hurricane to the first gust of wind—but you actually can trace your way back to a wildfire's first spark. And sometimes, someone has to pay.

The 2007 Witch Creek Fire caused billions of dollars worth of damage in Southern California. While the fire was still burning, wildfire investigators showed up on the scene, and traced the flames back to where they began. The results spawned a ten-year legal battle over who should pay for the damage.

We're looking back at this story today because this week, Pacific Gas and Electric, California's largest utility company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Investigators have linked several recent wildfires back to the company's power lines and equipment. PG&E is facing billions of dollars in potential liabilities.

Today on the show, we follow fire investigators into a high-stakes debate: Where's the line between a natural disaster and a human one?

Music: "Spinning Piano" and "Pixels."

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