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UPDATE 2-PG&E lines blamed for deadliest wildfire in California history

Steve Gorman

(Adds details from Cal Fire statement, background)

LOS ANGELES, May 15 (Reuters) - State fire investigators have determined that transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co caused the deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California, a blaze that killed 85 people last year, officials said on Wednesday.

The wind-driven blaze, dubbed the Camp Fire, erupted in the drought-parched Sierra foothills 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco in November 2018 and raced with little warning through the town of Paradise, incinerating much of that community.

Nearly 19,000 homes and other structures were destroyed, and the death toll of 85 civilians stands as the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history. Several firefighters were injured.

Cal Fire "has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated" by PG&E near the small riverfront community of Pulga, about 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Paradise in Butte County, the agency said in a statement.

A second ignition point for the fire was also "determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines" owned and operated by the utility, Cal Fire said.

The statement gave no details about findings as to precisely how the power lines sparked the flames, or whether investigators determined that PG&E was at fault for lapses in the maintenance of its equipment or vegetation clearance.

There was no immediate comment from the company about the latest Cal Fire findings.

A Cal Fire spokeswoman said the investigators' report had been furnished to the Butte County District Attorney's Office for further review.

Cal Fire concluded last June that PG&E-owned power lines had sparked a separate series of wildfires that swept Northern California's wine country in 2017, and found a number of unspecified code violations alleged in several of the blazes it examined. But prosecutors from four affected counties later determined there was no basis to criminally charge the utility in connection with the so-called North Bay fires.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the North Bay and Camp Fires.

The company remains under criminal probation from its conviction for a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion near San Francisco and is a defendant in numerous private civil cases stemming from wildfires.

Shares of San Francisco-based PG&E initially fell 3.1 percent in after-hours trading following release of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) statement announcing findings of its investigation of the blaze. The stock later recovered and was trading at 0.2 percent above the closing price of $18.10 a share.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)