Another $85 million on PacifiCorp’s liability tab

PacifiCorp will pay another $85 million to nine more victims of the 2020 Labor Day fires, after a jury in Multnomah County on Tuesday recorded the latest verdict in a series of lawsuits that means billions of dollars in liability costs for the Portland-based utility company, according to an AP report.

“PacifiCorp has settled and will continue to settle all reasonable claims for actual damages under Oregon law,” the utility said. The western Oregon fires were among the worst in the state’s history, killing nine people, burning 1.2 million acres, and destroying upward of 5,000 homes and other structures. Though the extreme fires were not unprecedented, the Labor Day fires burned more of the Oregon Cascades than had burned in the previous 36 years combined.

one of the exhibits at PacifiCorp trial
From one of the exhibits at trial establishing PacifiCorp’s liability

A jury in June found PacifiCorp liable for negligence in its failure to de-energize powerlines for its 600,000 customers — after the utility was warned by fire officials and emergency managers that its powerlines had started multiple fires and that there was an emergency need to cut power in at-risk areas because of the extreme fire danger.

Plaintiffs were awarded $71 million in that case.

PacifiCorp agreed last month to pay $299 million to settle a lawsuit by 463 plaintiffs who lost homes and other property in southern Oregon wildfires in September 2020. That jury awarded around $90 million to 17 homeowners. The award on Tuesday was the first of cases brought by plaintiffs in the broader class-action suit. More trials are set for February and April.

2020 Labor Day fires in western Oregon
Labor Day weekend fires in 2020 in western Oregon

911 calls: the stranded and missing in Maui’s wildfires

“The flames came back … they’re in the trees and the grass.”

“We slept on the street.”

“We’re dying out here.”

The Associated Press has compiled numerous 911 calls from the barrage that Maui operators received the day after wildfires swept through Lahaina. The operator answers were the same each time; emergency responders weren’t able to help find missing people because they were still trying to get people to safety, still working hotspots and responding to fires.

Maui fires, NASA image
Maui fires, NASA image

The 911 recordings from the morning and early afternoon of August 9, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, were the third batch of calls released by the Maui Police Department in response to a public records request. The recordings demonstrate that dispatchers and first responders were limited by diminished staffing and communications failures.

Some callers ask where their family members are, some report disastrous fire damage, and others plead with dispatch  to tell them where to go to be safe. People were trapped in their homes or hotel rooms, many with no food or water. With each desperate call, operators had relatively the same response: they had no answers.

Read the full story here.

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FEMA director resigns after fire fund failure

Longtime federal agency official Angela Gladwell has “overseen” the $4 billion compensation fund that was supposed to pay victims of a disastrous 2022 New Mexico wildfire accidentally started by the Forest Service. Her resignation follows resounding criticism of FEMA’s handling of payments that were funded and due residents for damages caused by the Hermit’s Peak / Calf Canyon Fire, which destroyed over 400 homes and racked up literally billions of dollars in suppression costs and damages.

Angela Gladwell’s actually being “reassigned,” because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is “restructuring” its disaster response in New Mexico — in part because of loud and long criticism of its handling of disaster aid and damage payments — which Source New Mexico and ProPublica have followed for the past year.

A year after the fire, the FEMA claims office had paid less than 1 percent of its total funding allocated.

In a news release announcing Gladwell’s departure, Deborah Martinez with the claims office said she “successfully built a compensation program from the ground, assembling a team of locally hired staff with knowledge of New Mexico and the communities affected by the wildfires.” Martinez said Gladwell will now “transition to a new role” as FEMA consolidates recovery programs in the state. She would not, however, answer questions about what that “consolidation” might entail.

Bushfires north of Perth in Western Australia

Residents near Perth on the southwestern coast of Australia  are being warned to evacuate or risk losing their lives, with an emergency bushfire warning in place.

Perth on the southwest coast of Australia
Perth on the southwest coast of Australia

The bushfire alert was in effect on Monday morning, and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) warned that homes and lives were at risk. Residents in other towns including Bindoon, Breera, Gingin, Lennard Brooke, Mooliabeenee, and Moondah were warned that they were “in danger and need to act immediately to survive,” with homes on Wowra Drive and Lennard Road under direct threat by fire.

Gingin Volunteer Fire & Rescue
Photo by Chandler Blackburn, Gingin Volunteer Fire & Rescue
Residents were told to take immediate action with the cluster of fires north of Perth and were warned to either leave for safety — or take shelter in their homes if it’s not safe to evacuate. Residents not at home were warned to not try to return.
Infrared image, Australia, 15. January 2024

More than 200 firefighters and aviation support staff are fighting the cluster of fires in the Gingin and Chittering shires, and a severe heat warning indicated that temperatures were rising into the mid-forties (40°C = 104°F).

An emergency bushfire alert has been issued for residents just an hour away from Perth. Picture: DFES/ Nikki Woods/ Gingin Volunteer Fire and Rescue
Nikki Wood photo, DFES – Gingin Volunteer Fire & Rescue
An emergency bushfire alert has been issued for residents just an hour away from Perth, the Australian reports. Warnings were issued for Bambun, Coonabidgee, Breera, and Lennard Brooke. “There is a possible threat to lives and homes as a fire is approaching in the area and conditions are changing,” the DFES warned.

Bushfire-prone weather conditions are expected for the rest of this week, with a thunderstorm warning adding to the fire danger. The Bureau of Meteorology issued an extreme fire danger warning for the areas of Barrup and Blackwood with hot, dry and windy conditions increasing fire danger. Lightning and wind from thunderstorms in the South West Land Division could also ignite and exacerbate fires, and heatwave warnings were issued for much of Western Australia.

Nearly double the usual winter wildfires, triple the acreage burned in northern India

India’s Forest Service has reported 1,006 wildfire alerts to the northern state of Uttarakhand since November 1, according to the Times of India. That number is up from the 556 wildfire alerts the service reported during the same time last year.

The increase is part of a worrying and destructive cycle that has escalated in the area for the past six years. Uttarakhand has had triple the acres burned by wildfires since 2017, worsened by its first-ever repeated occurrence of winter wildfires, or wildfires outside of the state’s usual fire season of February 15 to June 15.

“The unusual shift in the fire season may be linked to different reasons including climate change, the lockdown, or too much human intervention in the forests,” Arti Chaudhary, the head of Silviculture and Forest Resource Management Division at the Forest Research Institute, told the Times. “A five-year study across 15 states of the country that witness forest fires, including Uttarakhand, has been initiated to thoroughly understand the actual reasons behind this shift, as it has been recorded all over the country.”

The winter wildfires also contributed to the state’s above-average wildfire carbon emissions in 2021. Uttarakhand’s wildfires emitted an estimated 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in March 2021 alone, breaking a record set in 2003, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service scientist Mark Parrington.

Northern India’s skies took on a hazy hue in November caused in part by the unusual wildfire shift, NASA satellites show. The haze is reportedly a seasonal occurrence caused by urban pollution entering the atmosphere when seasonal weather patterns trap air pollution near the ground, but smoke from the unseasonal wildfires made the air quality even worse.

“The World Health Organization considers 15 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to be a safe limit,” said NASA. “But ground-based air quality monitors routinely measured levels that exceeded 300 and, at times, 500 micrograms per cubic meter in November.”

northern India, NASA image
Northern India, NASA image