PG&E shares plummet as California burns

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Shares in PG&E are trading at their lowest level in more than a decade with the utility facing questions about its liability in a Northern California wildfire that has left at least 48 people dead and charred more than 7,000 homes.

Although investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze, in an updated filing Tuesday night with the Securities and Exchange Commission, PG&E acknowledged that if its equipment was found to have caused the fire, it "could be subject to significant liability in excess of insurance coverage" and expected it would have significant impact on the company's financial condition, operations, liquidity and cash flows.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. also said in the third quarter it renewed its liability insurance coverage for wildfires to about $1.4 billion.

An analyst with Citi Investment Research estimates damages from the fire could exceed $15 billion and noted that the state of California "will likely step in to protect the utility and its customers."

Shares in the San Francisco company plunged another 25 percent Wednesday, to $24.50. They have lost about 45 percent of their value since the fire broke out last week.

It has suffered three of its worst trading days on record since Friday.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Californians who have lost homes in the state's deadliest and most destructive wildfire said a high voltage transmission line failed, sparking the fire. They accuse Pacific Gas & Electric Co. of failing to maintain infrastructure and properly inspecting and maintaining its power transmission lines.

PG&E told state regulators last week that it experienced a problem on a transmission line just before the blaze erupted in the vicinity. In its filing Thursday with the state Public Utilities Commission, it said it had detected an outage on an electrical transmission line. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.

A landowner near where the blaze began, Betsy Ann Cowley, said PG&E notified her the day before the blaze that crews needed to come onto her property because the utility's wires were sparking.

PG&E President Geisha Williams told the Chico Enterprise-Record on Tuesday that it was too soon to determine if sparks from a transmission line ignited the fire.

She said the sparks are one of several "options" investigators are reviewing.

PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean said Wednesday the blaze has charred 210 square miles (544 square kilometers) and that it is one-third contained.

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