Arson not suspected in fire at Calif. power plant

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OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Fire crews mopped up and surveyed damage Friday from a fire at a Northern California power plant that supplies electricity to pumps used by a major water delivery system, authorities said.

Crews were able to get into the Ronald B. Robie Thermalito Pumping-Generating plant near Oroville after the fire died down overnight, state fire Capt. Scott McLean said. Fire crews had to battle thick black smoke and miles of wires that allowed flames to spread through walls, but they had the blaze under control by early Friday afternoon, McLean said.

The five-story plant was unoccupied when the fire broke out Thursday morning on the first floor below ground level, and no one was injured, he said. The cause is under investigation, although arson is not suspected, McLean said.

Officials from the California Department of Water Resources, which operates the plant, will not be allowed back inside until the air inside is safe to breathe, he said.

The plant about 70 miles north of Sacramento is part of the State Water Project, which supplies water to nearly a million acres of irrigated farmland and more than 25 million residents.

The fire is not expected to affect water deliveries, however, since supplies from nearby Lake Oroville — a major state reservoir — can be diverted around the damaged plant, according to Ted Thomas, a spokesman with the state Department of Water Resources.

The state, however, will have to purchase additional power to pump water. Thomas said the exact amount of additional electricity will be determined by how much water cities and farmers demand, and by environmental conditions.

Firefighters were driven out of the structure Thursday when visibility became poor and something fell inside, causing the ground to shudder.

"It was so intense, so smoky, and we were getting involved in a lot of life hazards," McLean said.

An initial survey showed significant damage to wiring and equipment, but it was less than firefighters had expected, McLean said.

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