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Episode 825: Who Started The Wildfire?

Marcus Yam
LA Times via Getty Images

Note: This episode originally ran in2018.

Wildfires aren't like other natural disasters. You can't trace a hurricane to the first gust of wind—but you actually cantrace 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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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.
Sally Helm reports and produces for Planet Money. She has covered wildfire investigation in California, Islamic Finance in Michigan, the mystery of declining productivity growth, and holograms. Helm is a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop and of Yale University. Before coming to work at NPR, she helped start an after-school creative writing program in Sitka, Alaska. She is originally from Los Angeles, California.