At­tor­neys say faulty power wires, lack of tree-trim­ming caused deadly wild­fires

The Garden Island - - Morning Briefing - Eric Risberg

BURLINGAME, Calif. — Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. was blamed in three law­suits filed Tues­day for neg­li­gence in the wild­fires that killed more than 40 peo­ple and de­stroyed over 8,000 homes in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia last month.

The law­suits al­lege the San Fran­cisco-based util­ity and its par­ent PG&E Corp. put prof­its over safety by fail­ing to trim trees and veg­e­ta­tion around power lines and didn’t main­tain aging equip­ment that con­trib­uted to the deadly se­ries of wind­driven fires that broke out Oct. 8 and raged across sev­eral counties, in­clud­ing the heart of wine coun­try.

The suits were filed on be­half of three cou­ples who lost their homes in the fires, in­clud­ing for­mer San Fran­cisco Mayor Frank Jor­dan, and a cou­ple hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter sur­viv­ing the fire by float­ing in their swim­ming pool for hours and dunk­ing un­der­wa­ter re­peat­edly to es­cape the ex­treme heat as flames blew around them and de­stroyed ev­ery­thing they owned.

“This calamity was pre­ventable,” at­tor­ney Frank Pitre said.

PG&E spokesman Don­ald Cut­ler said the law­suit was based on as­sump­tions be­cause the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the cause of the fires isn’t com­plete. He also said the com­pany’s brush clear­ance meets or ex­ceeds fed­eral and state re­quire­ments and the com­pany in­spects power lines at least once a year.

The state De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pre­ven­tion has not de­ter­mined the cause of the fires yet, but said elec­tri­cal equip­ment is one po­ten­tial source. PG&E has said the state is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether its power lines and equip­ment were a pos­si­ble cause.

In re­sponse to pre­vi­ous suits from the fire, PG&E said in a court fil­ing that a pri­vate power line may have sparked the fire that killed 21 peo­ple and de­stroyed more than 4,400 homes in Sonoma County. An­other 22 peo­ple were killed and at least 4,500 more struc­tures were de­stroyed in other fires in the re­gion.

Pitre said PG&E had pro­vided no sup­port for its claims that a third-party may have been in­volved and he crit­i­cized the le­gal fil­ing that gar­nered a front­page head­line in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle.

“We are outraged at the most re­cent PG&E sub­mis­sion, which cap­tured a head­line where PG&E seeks to shift and de­flect blame to an un­known per­son based on un­known facts,” Pitre said. “That’s not trans­parency in our view. That’s se­crecy. And, frankly, we’re tired of it.”

Pitre said the law­suits were aimed at get­ting the util­ity and state in­ves­ti­ga­tors to turn over ma­te­ri­als that will pin­point the cause of the fires.

One of the plain­tiff’s, Gre­gory Wil­son, who rode out the fire in his Santa Rosa swim­ming pool, spoke in a whis­per as he dis­cussed the fright­en­ing or­deal that put him and his wife, Christina, in an in­ten­sive care unit for 10 days with smoke in­hala­tion and burns.

“We watched ev­ery­thing burn around us,” said Wil­son, who hasn’t been able to speak in a nor­mal voice since the fire. “It’s a night­mare you can’t even imag­ine. ... We’re hop­ing they can shed light on this so no one will ever have to go through this and, hope­fully, no one else will have to die.”


At­tor­ney Frank Pitre holds up a news­pa­per head­line quot­ing Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric say­ing that some­one else’s wires may have started the last month’s wild­fires, dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Tues­day in Burlingame, Calif. Look­ing on at left is at­tor­ney Mike Kelly.

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