Trial begins with Pacific Power over 2020 wildfires

Opening arguments were heard yesterday in a lawsuit against PacifiCorp claiming that its negligence started several devastating 2020 wildfires that burned across western Oregon. KEZI-TV reported that the class action suit was filed in September 2020, not long after the fire’s containment, by Linn County residents who lost their homes in the Beachie Creek Fire. The suit grew to include plaintiffs from other Oregon wildfires.

The complaint alleges that Pacific Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp, did not deactivate certain powerlines during the heavy winds in the late summer of 2020. When those east winds brought down trees, they connected with live powerlines, igniting fires that destroyed hundreds of structures and killed several people.

“PacifiCorp chose not to protect Oregonians — it did not live up to its obligation, it didn’t take any action to prevent fires, and now, in this case, PacifiCorp should bear the consequences,” said Nicholas Rosinia, attorney for the plaintiffs. KOBI5 News reported that Pacific Power attorneys countered that a decision to de-energize powerlines is complex and can’t be based on fire risk alone. “The possibility of an ignition must be weighed against the dangers of de-energization when whole cities and towns can be blanketed in darkness just when they need power the most,” said Doug Dixon, an attorney for the defendants.

The attorneys acknowledged that both Portland General Electric and Consumers Power, Inc. decided to turn off power in parts of their service areas around the Labor Day storms.

The Beachie Creek Fire was reported August 16, 2020 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about six miles northwest of Detroit Lake in Oregon, some 38 miles east of Salem. According to records in the daily national Incident Management Situation Report and GIS data, the fire was:

      • 10 acres August 26, 10 days after it was reported
      • 23 acres August 31, 15 days after it was reported
      • 150 acres September 3, 18 days after it was reported
      • 469 acres September 7, 22 days after it was reported; (before the winds began that night).

Plaintiffs are asking for more than $1.6 billion in damages, according to court documents. The trial is scheduled to last until at least mid-June.

2020 Labor Day fires
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. This image was captured during a very strong wind event. NASA photo

The Oregonian reported that the Labor Day fires burned more than 1.2 million acres in Oregon, destroyed upwards of 5,000 homes and structures, and claimed nine lives. PacifiCorp is the primary defendant in litigation from the fires; the Portland-based utility, Oregon’s second largest, did not shut down power to any of its 600,000 customers during the windstorm. Its lines have been implicated in six separate fires, one of which started in its California service territory and burned across the state line into Oregon.

Jurors will determine PacifiCorp’s responsibility, if any, in four of those fires: the Santiam Canyon fires east of Salem, the Echo Mountain Complex near Lincoln City, the South Obenchain Fire near Eagle Point, and the Two Four Two Fire near the southwest Oregon town of Chiloquin. This is a historic trial and will likely reshape the way Pacific Northwest electric utilities respond to increasing wildfire risks influenced by climate change, persistent drought conditions, and increasing numbers of acres burned each year.

In November 2022, PacifiCorp settled another case out of court with two families who sued over the Archie Creek Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres in Douglas County in 2020.

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16 thoughts on “Trial begins with Pacific Power over 2020 wildfires”

  1. Many areas which are subject to high winds and other weather events that can bring down Power lines are caught up in a catch 22 situation. The power companies would have put the power lines underground to minimize repeated storm damage but were prevented from doing so by NEPA requirements and Environmental Protesters. These same NIMBY folks are the ones who scream that we are not doing enough to put out the fires in the Wilderness before it causes large fires that explode into the adjoining urban interface areas where they all want to live without creating any defensible space around their homes. The Power Companies have to operate within the legal restrictions the state and federal courts and legislative bodies have imposed without increasing our power rates to help cover the increased costs of Preventative maintenance of the power grid.
    The solution is multi-pronged and unfortunately in many cases, the cost-benefit analysis on the part of both the Energy producers and the Environmental Activists shows that the cost to prevent occasional loss of life, or dealing with the aftermath of the periodic major fire is does not warrant the expenditure of funds to prevent their occurrence.

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    1. I appreciate your response to this article. Sadly, basic science rebukes your response to what is happening, regarding extreme weather events.

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      1. It’s all about the power lines and not thinning the forest great excuse. Retired Fire 5yrs ago environmentalists are and will continue to destroy are Forest just let it burn.

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        1. At the moment, I am considering your comment with regard to a lengthy wildfire in the Willamette National Forest last year that engulfed the community of Oakridge, OR with extremely bad air quality for a lengthy period of time last summer. As I understand, the fire was burning in an unaccessible area.

          The terrain is steep and rugged for wildland firefighters. For a time it threatened some community members living within an urban-rural wildland interface. Due to the rugged terrain, it is unlikely that it was considered a desirable timber harvest area.

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    2. PG&E are not victims of NEPA requirements or environmental protesters. They are victims of their own greed. Their negligence and complete unwillingness to adhere to even basic regulations is the issue. They choose money over public safety.

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      1. I agree and thanks for making me look up more information regarding PG&E. What I know so far, they are currently/have been sued by victims of wildfire destruction due to property destruction/loss of human life due to preventable wildfire events.

        Wait, what? PG&E is currently publicly traded at the NYSE: PCG

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  2. It’s easy, although not necessarily constructive to attack an entity such as a utility company, and I agree that in some cases their actions, or lack thereof, rises to legal negligence. However, we need to look at whatever regulatory requirements have been placed upon the company by the responsible government agency and how they impact a potential partial or complete system shutdown. We also need to consider that in this day and age every person who has their EV, freezer, TV, furnace, etc go off line if a power company chooses a proactive stance will, whether they live in proximity to the fire or not, be mobbing the various plaintiff attorneys by sunrise the following day for damages. I’m not saying the company should not have shut down some or all of its system in this case, only that there is far more to what is a complex decision matrix than some think. As a disclaimer, I have no ties to the utility industry but I do have 55 years of firefighting experience and have dealt with a lot of these kinds of ignitions and many utility companies.

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    1. I appreciate your lengthy reply. Nonetheless, your reply nor that of the utility company named in this article is sufficient to legally deflect blame for harm to human life and property destruction due to wildfires.

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    2. Listen to The Dollup Podcast about PG&E. The negligence is astounding. If they aren’t held accountable they will keep doing it.

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      1. Unlike print or broadcast journalism, these podcasts have too much unproductive airtime. I tried but gave up five minutes in when no relevant content was shared with the listener. I would be interested in hearing a synopsis of the program, based on your comment.

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        1. yeah, Martin, same here. A long verbal assault on PG&E by two comedians? Nope.

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  3. It’s high time that utility providers take responsibility for loss of human life or property destruction for decisions on power transmission during extreme weather events.

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