Yet another blow for PacifiCorp

Guess which utility company in Oregon was ordered in a jury trial to cough up another $42 million for its negligence in starting the 2020 Labor Day fires?

It’s come to feel almost like a late-night comedy routine. Financial damages now total up in the billions of dollars, as PacifiCorp and others have racked up loss after loss in court with people who lost their homes, their properties, friends and family members, and often lifetimes of memories living in scenic river canyons of western Oregon. The utility company was ordered yesterday to pay off 10 more victims of the fires 3½ years ago that were driven by east winds, high temperatures, and flames started by neglected electric equipment owned and (not) maintained by Pacific Power, which is a part of PacifiCorp, which is a part of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Oregon's Labor Day fires
Oregon’s 2020 Labor Day fires — Oregon State Fire Marshal photo

As an Associated Press report explains, in June of last year a jury found PacifiCorp liable for negligently refusing to cut power to its 600,000 electric customers, despite repeated warnings from fire and emergency officials. The jury determined that the utility had acted negligently and willfully and should have to pay punitive and other damages — a decision that applied to a class of current and potential litigants including the owners of up to 2,500 properties.

Tuesday’s decision was the third verdict applied to a specific set of plaintiffs. Last month, a jury awarded $85 million to a different group of nine plaintiffs, and the jury that initially found PacifiCorp liable awarded about $90 million to 17 homeowners named as plaintiffs in that case.

Other PacifiCorp lawsuits over the Labor Day 2020 fires are detailed HERE   and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.  Thousands of other class members are still awaiting trials, though the sides are also expected to engage in mediation that could lead to a settlement.

The U.S. government is also threatening to sue PacifiCorp to recover nearly $1 billion in costs related to the 2020 wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California, though the company is trying to negotiate a settlement. The PacifiCorp website says the company leads in wildfire mitigation, and its system-wide, six-state plan includes in-house emergency management and meteorology and data science teams — and features the installation of over 450 weather stations, grid hardening, fire-risk modeling software, and an “enhanced” vegetation management program.

“The safety of our employees, customers, and communities remains our top priority,” declares PacifiCorp.

Meanwhile in southeast Idaho, renewable energy developer NorthRenew Energy has sold its 300-MW-plus Arco Wind and Solar project in southeast  Idaho to PacifiCorp. This is NorthRenew’s ninth project sale since the company’s inception in 2017.

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

Louisiana’s governor asks the impossible: Please don’t barbecue on Labor Day

One look at Louisiana’s traditional barbecue practice can set off alarm bells in the heads of firefighters.

The French Louisianan practice of Cochon de lait (co-shaun-du-lay) translates literally to “suckling pig” and involves pit roasting a young pig. Images of the practice show a long row of logs and hot coals blazing with high flames surrounded with split hogs hung on racks.

Cochon de laits were originally cooked over fireplaces in early-American kitchens, but the most common method today is in an outdoor cooking shed, grill or open fire pit,” according to the state’s official travel authority. “A fire that is constantly maintained should cook a 50-pound pig in about five or six hours, giving you plenty of time to kick back and relax with family and friends. It’s a good bet you’ll find it at a variety of fairs, festivals and tailgates around the state.”

The very open flame barbecue practice, along with the state’s affinity with smoked meats, shows why Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards may have felt it was necessary to explicitly ask the state’s residents to not barbecue for Labor Day weekend — and the beginning of the football season this year — as numerous wildfires burn across the state.

“We know [Labor Day] typically involves a lot of cookouts and barbecues, especially with the return of football,” Edwards said during a press conference on Aug. 30. “I’m asking that people not engage in barbecuing and so forth outside where a fire can start.”

The request itself isn’t out of the ordinary. Louisiana has been under a statewide burn ban since August because of extreme heat, widespread severe drought, and ongoing wildfires in the southwestern portion of the state. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry also banned prescribed burns, and Edwards prohibited all agricultural burning with an executive order. However, what media found especially unusual about the governor’s request was that it coincided with the weekend that rings in the final days of summer barbecuing and the beginning of LSU football tailgating barbecuing.

“Let’s be patient and not create more work for firefighters in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “We need to prevent what is already a serious situation from becoming worse.”

The state’s residents may need to be very patient. This year’s burn ban has already far exceeded the length of the state’s previous statewide burn ban in 2015, which lasted only 10 days. On August 7 Louisiana Fire Marshal Daniel Wallis expanded the in-effect burn ban to include burning on both public and private property.

“This new burn ban order … prohibits ALL private burning, with no limitations,” the Office of Louisiana State Fire Marshal said. “The already extremely dry conditions statewide, and the concern over first responder safety in these dangerously high temperatures, have worsened as wildfires spread across Louisiana and significant rain relief remains elusive in weather forecasts.”

Time will tell whether Louisianans will obey the burn ban to stop further wildfire tragedies, or stick to tradition and risk igniting more fires.