#825: Who Started The Wildfire? 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?
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#825: Who Started The Wildfire?

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#825: Who Started The Wildfire?

#825: Who Started The Wildfire?

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SALLY HELM, HOST:

Hey. It's Sally Helm. There was big news yesterday out of my home state of California. The giant utility company Pacific Gas and Electric or PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. PG&E is one of the nation's biggest utilities. They serve about 16 million people. And this news comes after two years of really bad wildfires across California. Investigators have said that PG&E equipment caused some of those fires. And the company is facing billions of dollars in potential liabilities. Last year, we did a story about wildfires and fire investigation. And the questions we asked then are right at the center of what is happening with PG&E. So we're re-airing that story today. It originally ran in February 2018. Here's the show.

There are these videos you may have seen in December. It felt like they were everywhere for a while. They're shot from cars driving down the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. It's dark out. The cars drive through this valley, and they pass between two hills that are completely on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wow. Look at this.

HELM: It looks like the cars are driving straight down into hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I can feel the heat...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can feel the heat...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God.

HELM: I grew up not far from those hills, and I spent a lot of time watching these videos as wildfires were spreading throughout Southern California. It was a really bad fire season.

OK. I'm about to get on the 405.

I went out to Los Angeles because I really wanted to stand on those hills. I wanted to see, what do they look like now? So I drove up there. I got out of my car. And right away, I saw a house that had clearly burned.

Wow.

Past the house, there was a trail leading up into the hills.

I can see the 405 Freeway down below me. Wow. You can still really see - there are these twisted-up trees. Oh, my God. There's like a shell of a car on the side of the hill. Wow. It's like walking through a weird wasteland.

It's really eerie. I don't know what exactly I'm looking at except that the fire was definitely here. But I'd called up someone who would know what he's looking at.

ROBERT ROWE: Howdy.

HELM: Hi. Are you Robert?

ROWE: Yeah.

HELM: Hello.

Robert Rowe agreed to meet me here because he can look at a burnt up hillside like this and read it like a book. He's a former firefighter. And for more than a decade now, he has had his own fire investigation company.

ROWE: I designed my own logo.

HELM: What's your logo?

ROWE: It's a little guy with a magnifying glass with a flat top. And he's Pyrocop, right?

HELM: And you're Pyrocop.

ROWE: And I'm Pyrocop. So...

HELM: We start walking up the hill together.

So when you walk up here, what do you notice first? I mean, to me, it just looks like a sort of apocalyptic wasteland.

ROWE: So as we're approaching a shrub here, we're going to be looking at the...

HELM: Robert starts turning over rocks, pointing out trees that are burned almost to ash. This spot that we're in, it's like one chapter of the fire that burned here, which was called the Skirball fire.

ROWE: A discoloration on the underside...

HELM: And Robert is reading this hillside to see where the flames were coming from. Were they traveling up the hill or down the hill or across the hill? When we get up to the peak, he tells me...

ROWE: That fire traveled up this hill. There's no question.

HELM: Did you see that right when you walked on the scene?

ROWE: Well, yeah, pretty much.

HELM: (Laughter).

When a wildfire breaks out, Pyrocops like Robert, they show up at the scene, and they have enormous power because the spot the fire started and the reason it started, those are going to have huge consequences for a lot of people.

ROWE: If you can identify the source of ignition down to a fraction of an inch, and it becomes somebody's equipment that either failed or somebody's action, then somebody's going to go to jail or somebody's going to have a hefty recovery bill that they're going to have to pay.

HELM: It could be even, like...

ROWE: Millions.

HELM: Millions.

ROWE: Yes - billions, actually.

HELM: Billions with a B?

ROWE: Oh, yeah - billions.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAJIOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

HELM: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Helm.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

And I'm Kenny Malone. And wildfires are not like other natural disasters because you can't pin an earthquake on a single reckless teenager. You can't trace a hurricane back to the first gust of wind.

HELM: But with a wildfire, you can find your way back to the first spark. You can find a reason this disaster happened. And sometimes, someone has to pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAJIOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

MALONE: Today on the show, how to find the source of a deadly wildfire and how to find the line between a natural disaster and a human one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAJIOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

MALONE: There's an official list of the top 10 most destructive wildfires in California history. And if you look at that list, six of those fires happened in the last two years, which is to say between October 2017 and the end of 2018. It has been two horrific fire seasons. And next to each of those fires on this little list is like a note where the cause of the fire would go. But for almost all of these recent fires, it just says, under investigation.

HELM: It could take months for those investigations to wrap up. And so we're going to look back at a different fire, one of the biggest, most destructive fires in California history. And we're going to tell the story of how that blank got filled in and what it meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Residents are getting word that they must leave their homes immediately. Within just the first few hours that the Witch Creek Fire burned, that fire quadrupled in size. And right now...

MALONE: On October 21, 2007, the Witch Creek Fire started somehow and then spread shockingly fast.

HELM: It wasn't clear exactly how bad the damage would be. But one thing was clear - the Witch Creek Fire was going to be one of the big ones.

MATT GILBERT: I was on duty in Riverside unit as a fire captain specialist.

MALONE: This is Matt Gilbert. He works for a state agency known as CAL FIRE.

GILBERT: Basically, I got a phone call sending me to the Witch Fire to be the origin and cause investigator on it.

MALONE: When there's a murder, you would send a detective. When there's a fire, you send Matt Gilbert.

HELM: And so Matt drives towards the area where the first reports came from, which means he is driving towards the fire.

MALONE: Which is pretty intense, but Matt seems chill about it.

GILBERT: You know, I'm seeing fire on, you know, both sides of the roads.

HELM: What was that like?

GILBERT: Fairly typical for our jobs - yeah, it was fairly normal.

MALONE: So Matt's driving through a two-sided fire. And he can see which way the flames are blowing in the wind, so he knows roughly where the fire is coming from.

HELM: He drives down to the edge of the burned zone. There's still some smoke around, blackened grasses everywhere. This is where he starts his investigation.

GILBERT: The part where I was at was on top of a ridge. The wind was blowing to the point where, at moments, it was very difficult - not very difficult, but you can definitely feel the wind slowing your progress as you're walking.

MALONE: Before Matt can figure out what started this fire, he needs to figure out exactly where this fire started.

HELM: And the fire leaves a lot of signs that an investigator like Matt can follow back. He can see the direction that the fire burned across a tree. It's like an arrow pointing him towards the source.

MALONE: Same is true with charred rocks on the ground.

GILBERT: Trash, cans and bottles, anything that's left on the ground can be an indicator for us.

MALONE: He walks and walks, follows the fire's trail and winds up at what he is almost certain is the spot the fire started. The signs are pointing towards the spot.

HELM: There's a dirt road winding through this rocky ranch land. You would not be surprised if you saw a cowboy riding through the background. And this is the point where the process changes. Now Matt is looking for the actual cause of the fire.

MALONE: And it is sort of like the game Clue. Like, he's figured out that the crime was committed in the conservatory. And he doesn't just get to look down and see if there's a wrench or a revolver lying there. He has to eliminate all of the weapon choices and figure out what actually started this.

HELM: Yeah. That's his process - process of elimination. It's a way to make sure he's being as thorough and scientific as possible. And Matt has been to, like, fire investigator school. He has a whole list of these potential fire causes in his head.

GILBERT: Equipment use, debris burning, lightning, spontaneous combustion...

HELM: Spontaneous combustion?

GILBERT: Yes.

HELM: What is that?

GILBERT: This is where, oftentimes, you will see in a - like a mulch pile, under the right conditions, can self-heat and ignite.

HELM: Whoa. Really?

GILBERT: Yes.

HELM: (Laughter) That's kind of insane. OK.

MALONE: So Matt looks around for mulch piles. He doesn't see anything. He checks the dirt for tire tracks because cars can start a fire.

HELM: He looks for glass bottles. Apparently, in rare circumstances, sunlight can refract through a glass bottle - start a wildfire.

MALONE: Matt doesn't see anything like that laying around.

HELM: How about smoking? I sort of hear about, you know, don't flick a cigarette out your car window or whatever. Is that a real thing?

GILBERT: It's not as common as one might think. My partners and I, you know, we carry a pack of cigarettes in the truck. And we've tried it. And I have yet to be successful.

MALONE: Matt's sifting through dirt, peering under rocks, checking weather reports.

HELM: He sees no cigarettes, no signs of arson, no reports of lightning.

GILBERT: Well, at this point, after all those, right now we're looking at the power lines.

HELM: The power lines. Matt gets really technical at this point in our conversation. He speaks carefully.

GILBERT: I was able to observe damage to the power lines, where it appeared to be small sections of the power line were missing.

MALONE: When he says small sections were missing, he means that there were little nicks in the metal wires - spots of visible damage.

HELM: Do you sort of think that you know what's going on at that point?

GILBERT: At this point, it's not a 100 percent determination, but I've got something that bears further follow-up.

HELM: Here's the part of the story where we say the company that owned those power lines, San Diego Gas & Electric, declined to be interviewed.

MALONE: Now remember. Matt starts this investigation on day one of the fire. And within a day or two, he is already zeroing in on a cause.

HELM: But he won't release this information until he's done a complete investigation, and so he keeps on investigating.

MALONE: In the meantime, all the public knows at this point is that the Witch Creek Fire is burning and spreading and is very dangerous. People actually did die in this fire. And other people are trying to escape. Some of them are recording videos as they flee their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Everything's red. You can see all the ash here. You can hear all the fire trucks in the distance.

MALONE: One person looking out his window seeing all of this is Terry Singleton.

TERRY SINGLETON: In very short order, the sky was full of smoke.

RANDY GIMPLE: The wildfire was moving dangerously close to Terry Singleton's house.

HELM: So you were ready. You were packed.

SINGLETON: Pretty much, yeah. I packed up the stuff I really did not want to lose - like 50 years of photographs and that sort of thing, a handful of documents - but that was it.

HELM: So mostly photos is what you were thinking about.

SINGLETON: Yeah. I think I also had my golf clubs in the back of the trunk.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Terry's able to laugh about this now in part because the fire spared his house. But he's an attorney, and he is part of this niche legal industry - it's actually more like two armies - that start lining up when a wildfire starts to spread. Terry, in the past, has represented victims of wildfires just like this.

HELM: And so Terry starts getting calls from people who are losing their homes. And they're saying, Terry, is there going to be anything we can do about this?

MALONE: And on the other side of this are companies who are calling their attorneys and wondering, uh-oh. Are we going to get sued for this? And some of them may have called Randy Gimple.

GIMPLE: Anything that can create a spark and anyone who can be responsible for creating that spark could be a client of mine someday.

MALONE: In 2007, Randy was a lawyer for a cable company and a tree trimming company that got sued over other big fires burning near Witch Creek at the same time.

HELM: Randy has been a part of this wildfire legal world for years. He says when a fire starts spreading, you'll have all these opposing lawyers. And they hire private fire investigators. Insurance companies have lawyers and their own investigators. They're all showing up on the perimeter of these fires, sometimes literally.

GIMPLE: You'd be amazed. I'll go to places. I was working a fire in Texas, and that thing was still burning. I'm walking down this dirt road in this small town in Texas. I turn a corner, and there are five guys I know. And it's like a traveling road show sometimes.

MALONE: So Randy hears about the fires in San Diego, and he goes down there. Terry, the lawyer for victims, he's there too. Both of them are getting information from their investigators.

HELM: Word is going around that power lines may have been involved in one of the fires. And so these two legal armies are gearing up.

MALONE: But the official word on the cause is going to come from Matt Gilbert.

HELM: What he found? - after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Matt Gilbert had seen those damaged power lines at the origin of the Witch Creek Fire. But to be sure about the cause, he got in touch with the first person to report the fire. It was a pilot who works with the same state agency as Matt - CAL FIRE.

HELM: The pilot was in the air over Witch Creek and saw the fire when it was still small. Matt wants to know if he'd seen anything weird around that spot.

MALONE: And the pilot says, you know, I think I did see something, like with the power lines.

GILBERT: He observed a line of bluish-colored flashes that were blowing with the wind away from the power lines.

MALONE: To be as certain as possible, Matt gets access to data from San Diego Gas and Electric about those very power lines he saw at the area of origin. And it's very technical data. But he reads it and concludes that on the day of the fire, just minutes before that fire was first reported, something happened with the power lines that very well may have caused the first spark of the Witch Creek Fire.

HELM: So at this point, are you 100 percent sure?

GILBERT: At this point, I was comfortable releasing the official cause of the fire, yes.

HELM: Would you say 100 percent? I mean, is that too strong?

GILBERT: Basically at this point, when I - based on all the available information I have...

HELM: I think in Matt Gilbert speak, that means he's sure. He says in the scheme of fires he's investigated, this one was pretty clear. And so Matt releases the official cause of the Witch Creek Fire. It was the power lines operated by San Diego Gas and Electric.

MALONE: Lawyers had already launched into the legal battle. Lawsuits had already been filed. And now, with an official cause, even more suits start coming in.

HELM: How many cases were there about this fire?

SINGLETON: Oh, boy. I think about 2,000 cases.

HELM: That number includes the Witch Creek Fire and those two other fires that were burning nearby at the same time. And it was actually even more than 2,000. All told, there were about 2,600 claims spawned by those fires.

MALONE: Loads of people sued San Diego Gas and Electric. San Diego Gas and Electric turned around and sued some other companies, like Randy's clients, who were in charge of tree trimming, for example. Victims sued those companies as well.

HELM: Kenny, everybody's suing everybody. And in the end, the companies do not admit fault or liability. But they do pay a lot of money in settlements. In total, for all the fires, plus legal fees, more than $2 billion got paid out.

MALONE: That money got paid out by a number of entities. But all told, San Diego Gas and Electric themselves had to pay a reported $379 million to lawyers and to people who lost money or stuff in the fires.

HELM: This whole process, this whole Witch Creek Fire industry, it dragged out a long time. As of 2018, there were still some lawsuits and loose ends getting sorted out more than 10 years after that first spark. Terry though, the lawyer for the victims, he's settled all his cases. I asked what it felt like when he settled the last one.

SINGLETON: That's - it's an emotional experience to have people going through that. And you're supposed to be representing them. And, you know, you try to protect them.

HELM: Terry says these big settlement payments do a couple things. They mean that victims get help rebuilding their lives - money on top of any wildfire insurance they may have. And the settlements also hold companies accountable. So they'll do all they can to prevent the next big wildfire.

MALONE: Yeah, to prevent a disaster - but this raises an almost philosophical question. What is a natural disaster? And what is a disaster caused by humans?

HELM: Like if a deadly wildfire is started by a lightning strike, is it a natural disaster then?

MALONE: Probably.

HELM: Probably. How about a bottle, left there by human, hit just the wrong way by sunlight? Is that a natural disaster? Maybe. And if it started by a power line built there by humans, who are supposed to be making sure that it doesn't cause a fire, seems like that could be a human disaster.

MALONE: But climate change may be making it harder to say what is an act of God and what's an act of man. Like what if a spark comes from a power line, and then it lands on super dry brush that is dry because of a historically long drought? Where does the natural disaster end and the human disaster begin?

HELM: Back above the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, I was heading home out of those burned hills. And I stopped in front of that house that had burned.

Oh, my God. You can see that the roof's caved in - exposed pipes. There's a blackened beam sticking up.

We still don't know the source of many of the big fires that hit California last year. But investigators actually did find the cause of this one. It was a cooking fire in a homeless encampment a little ways down the mountain. Any spark can start a fire, but not all sparks are financially equal. For this fire, there will be no huge settlement to help pay the price.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL HOPCROFT AND REX SANDERSON'S "PIXELS")

MALONE: Tell us what you think of the show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org - or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain. Alex Goldmark is our senior producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

HELM: Special thanks to Ron Eldridge and Scott McLean of CAL FIRE and to Justice John Trotter and lawyer Ken Roy (ph).

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

HELM: And I'm Sally Helm. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL HOPCROFT AND REX SANDERSON'S "PIXELS")

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