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

Another $250 million for PacifiCorp’s 2020 firestorm liability

PacifiCorp has settled with 10 timber companies in Oregon for $250 million after the utility company was found liable for starting many of the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported that for the second time this month, the utility provider will pay out hundreds of millions to end a lawsuit over its negligence in the wind-driven wildfires that started over Labor Day weekend in 2020 in western Oregon.

The settlement will resolve a lawsuit the timber companies brought against the utility for the Archie Creek Complex in west-central Oregon.

2020 Archie Creek Fire
Archie Creek Fire map, 2:35 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

On December 5, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company paid $299 million to settle another lawsuit brought by Oregon residents who lost their homes and property in the same fire, bringing PacifiCorp’s payouts this month to more than a half billion dollars.

[UPDATE 12/21/2023: How much Pacific Power rates are increasing.]

This lawsuit alleged that PacifiCorp’s employees ignored warnings from the National Weather Service and others on Labor Day weekend and decided to not power down its electrical equipment — or fall hazard trees and clear vegetation around powerlines.

“The 2020 wildfires were undeniably tragic,” the company said in a statement, “and PacifiCorp is pleased to resolve this matter on behalf of our impacted customers and communities.”

“I am proud to have recovered fair and full damages for Oregon’s timber industry,” said attorney Mikal Watts. He said that after the Archie Creek Fire had started, a lineman mistakenly re-energized a line after a tree had fallen into it, which ignited another separate fire. He said the timber companies lost of thousands of acres of timberlands in the fires. Watts explained that he hopes to work with PacifiCorp, along with Oregon lawmakers and utility regulators, to create a statewide risk pool for utilities, which would allow people to receive payouts without the need to file lawsuits after a fire. California created a  similar fund in 2019 after the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric caused by its wildfire payouts. A risk pool would be funded up front by utility customers and utilities themselves.

“The Public Utilities Commission ought to work together with this utility to try to recoup these costs to make it go away,” said Watts.

2020 fires aftermath

According to a KATU-TV report, PacifiCorp said this settlement is in addition to others with individuals and businesses that lost homes and other property, plus hundreds of insurance claims that PacifiCorp settled in which homeowners and businesses received insurance payments for damages.

Redwoods are sprouting 1000-year-old buds

When lightning ignited fires in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park north of Santa Cruz in August 2020, the fire spread quickly. Redwoods naturally resist burning, but these fires reached the canopies of trees over 300 feet tall. “It was shocking,” says Drew Peltier, a tree ecophysiologist at Northern Arizona University. “It really seemed like most of the trees were going to die.”

Yet many of them lived, according to a report in Science magazine, and in a paper published in Nature Plants, Peltier and his colleagues explain why:  The burned trees, despite losing their needles, mobilized their long-held energy reserves, the sugars that were produced from sunlight decades ago. The trees routed this energy into dormant buds under the bark.

“This is one of those papers that challenge our previous knowledge on tree growth,” says Adrian Rocha, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Notre Dame. “It is amazing to learn that carbon taken up decades ago can be used to sustain its growth into the future.”

When the wildfires in 2020 burned through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, reported the San Francisco Chronicle, they left some of the oldest trees on the planet badly burned; researchers now have estimates of  just how old the energy reserves of those redwoods are. Researchers studying a stand of severely burned old-growth redwoods found the buds were more than 1,000 years old.

Mild fires burn through coastal redwood forests about every decade, and the giant trees resist flames in part because the bark is up to a foot thick on the lower trunks, and it contains tannic acids that are fire-resistant. But in 2020 even the uppermost branches of many trees burned and their ability to photosynthesize went up in smoke along with their needles. Giant sequoias — which are different from the redwoods — can live for up to 3000 years, but in 2020 about 10 to 14 percent of the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada that were at least four feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire on the Sequoia National Forest.

A single sprout pushing up through thick redwood bark in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, as seen in April 2021.

Courtesy of Drew Peltier/Northern Arizona University 2021

A sprout emerges from thick redwood bark in Big Basin Redwoods State Park — 2021 photo by Drew Peltier, Northern Arizona University

Fire managers weren’t sure the trees on the Sequoia and in Big Basin would make it, but visiting the state park a few months after the fires, Peltier and his colleagues found fresh growth emerging from the trunks of blackened redwoods. They knew that shorter-lived trees can store sugars for several years. Because redwoods can live for more than 2000 years, the researchers wondered whether the trees were drawing on much older energy reserves to grow these new sprouts.

Within about 5 months, ancient trees had mobilized old stores of carbohydrate to resprout.LISSY ENRIGHT/U.S. FOREST SERVICE
Within about 5 months, ancient trees had mobilized their old stores of carbohydrate to resprout. LISSY ENRIGHT/USFS photo

Melissa Enright with the USFS covered parts of 60 blackened tree trunks with black plastic to block out sunlight, ensuring that any new sprouts would grow with only stored energy, not new sugars produced from current photosynthesis. After 6 months, the team brought some sprouts back to the lab, and they radiocarbon-dated them to calculate the age of those sugars. At 21 years, they are the oldest energy reserves shown to be used by trees.  But the mix of carbohydrates contained some carbon that was much older, and Peltier calculated that the redwoods’ carbohydrates were photosynthesized nearly 6 decades ago.

“They allow these trees to be really fire-resilient because they have this big pool of old reserves to draw on,” Peltier says. These redwoods have formed new sprouts, but Peltier and other forest researchers wonder how the trees will cope with far less energy from photosynthesis, considering that it will be many years before the trees can grow as many needles as they had before.

“It is likely that other long-lived trees also harbor carbon reserves that are much older than previously recognized,” said Peltier. The carbon stores observed in the trees, he told a Forbes reporter, date back as far as 1500 years, and they may provide hope for other ancient trees “destroyed” by fire.