Camp Fire: Shower of molten metal From 99 Year Old Transmission Tower

Camp Fire not caused by climate change.

PULGA — With winds gusting around 50 mph in the morning hours of Nov. 8, portions of a PG&E steel lattice transmission tower — exposed to the elements high on a ridgetop and originally built when Woodrow Wilson was president — failed.

As high-voltage lines got loose and whipped around, striking the metal tower, molten aluminum and metal sprayed across tinder dry vegetation, igniting the brush. Arriving firefighters could only watch as the blaze underneath the power lines quickly spread to wild timber and brush.

That’s the horror story about the ignition of the Camp Fire that attorneys, sources and experts have begun to construct after visiting the tower and reviewing records, fire transmissions and other data.

Now a month after the blaze first roared to life along the North Fork of the Feather River, near the resort town of Pulga, sources familiar with a Cal Fire probe say investigators are zeroing in on this “transpositional” tower that helps switch power among transmission lines on the Caribou-Palermo circuit, originally built in 1919. The focus is on whether a tiny O-ring that holds up rows of disc-shaped insulators, or possibly fatigued steel from one of the tower’s arms, caused the accident.

The orange arrows in this photo point to a missing arm of the transmission tower damaged at the Camp Fire origin after it was removed by Cal Fire for evidence. The red arrows point to the remnants of “jumper cables,” which transfer power from line to another. (Courtesy of Dario de Ghetaldi) 

“It’s there that the likely (O-ring) connection failed,” said Dario de Ghetaldi, an attorney suing PG&E on behalf of dozens of residents who lost their homes in the Camp Fire. “It could also be corrosion on the support extension. This is high in the mountains, you get very strong winds and they had extreme winds that night.”

PG&E has reported to state regulators that at 6:15 a.m. Nov. 8, a 115,000-volt transmission line malfunctioned. About 15 minutes later, fire radio transmissions indicate someone at Poe Dam, a little more than 1,000 feet away from the tower and down a steep canyon wall, reported the fire underneath the power lines amid high winds.

Within hours, the town of Paradise was nearly wiped off the map. At least 85 people died in the fire, and it’s destroyed more structures than any other wildfire in this flammable state’s history.

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