Cal Fire continues to probe cause of deadly wildfires despite arson arrest

Key Points
  • Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said an arson suspect was seen "walking away from a small fire."
  • The 29-year-old suspect allegedly had "a fire extinguisher and a lighter with him," the sheriff said.
  • Despite the arson arrest, Cal Fire said Tuesday afternoon it continues to investigate the cause of each of the wildfires in Northern California.
  • The wildfires have claimed more than 41 lives, and many more people remain listed as missing.
Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California.
Jim Urquhart | Reuters

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Tuesday an arson suspect arrested Sunday is known to local law enforcement and remains in custody.

"Our arson arrest involves someone who is known to the deputies," said Giordano. He went on to say the suspect frequents Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma and "is known to sleep there."

The wildfires now raging in Northern California have claimed at least 41 lives and are responsible for the loss of more than 5,700 structures in several counties, including Sonoma and Napa. The fires wiped out entire neighborhoods in portions of Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County.

Dozens of people remain missing, and around 200 search and rescue workers were in the field Tuesday conducting searches for more possible victims of the disaster. Authorities also said they are using drones to find hot spots still in scorched areas.

Cal Fire said "repopulations" of evacuated areas remain a "priority." Over the last 24 hours, the state agency said 13,956 homes and 36,225 people were repopulated. "That's a pretty brisk pace and about as fast as we can do it," said a Cal Fire official.

Recent reports have cited PG&E's power lines as a possible cause of some of the current wildfires.

Despite the arson arrest, Cal Fire said it continues to investigate the cause of the various fires in Northern California.

"Cal Fire investigators continue to work on cause and determination," Bret Gouvea, a Cal Fire incident commander, told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon in Sonoma County. "And they are working closely with local law enforcement on those efforts to find a cause for each one of these fires."

The arson suspect is Jesus Fabian Gonzales, 29, Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office told CNBC. Crum described him as "a transient out of Sonoma" and said the suspect was "arrested for setting a small fire in a park in Sonoma on Sunday."

Speaking at the Tuesday afternoon press conference, Giordano said the arson suspect was seen "walking away from a small fire" and stopped by deputies. Also, the suspect allegedly had "a fire extinguisher and a lighter with him," said the sheriff.

Giordano said the suspect was asked whether he started the fire and responded that "he started the fire to warm himself up — something to that effect."

In an SEC regulatory filing Friday, PG&E's parent company acknowledged that the causes of the fires are being investigated by Cal Fire, adding that the probe includes "the possible role of power lines and other facilities" of its Pacific Gas & Electric utility subsidiary.

The San Francisco-based utility has about $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses in connection with the wildfires, according to its SEC filing.

"If the amount of insurance is insufficient to cover the utility's liability or if insurance is otherwise unavailable, PG&E Corp's and the utility's financial condition or results of operations could be materially affected," the company's filing stated.

On Tuesday, PG&E shares closed up 7.5 percent. It recouped some of the losses from the past few days following investors getting nervous about its potential liability over the current wildfires.

An attorney specializing in wildfire lawsuits said PG&E could potentially be on the hook for up to $6 billion in damages if found liable for the deadly Northern California wildfires.

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