On Tuesday, Sonoma County and a mix of other local entities and cities sued the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) utility company over damages caused by the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County.
According to a joint news release on Tuesday, Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa, the town of Windsor, the city of Cloverdale, the city of Healdsburg, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and the Community Development Commission all filed the lawsuit against PG&E over public damages.
The Kincade Fire started in October 0f 2019 in Sonoma County and quickly spread across the area. Wineries were especially hit hard by the massive flames, and around 185,000 residents had to be evacuated. Ultimately, 78,000 acres, or 121 square miles, were burnt up. 374 buildings were destroyed in the blaze, and four firefighters were injured while containing the wildfire. Earlier this year in July, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) found that a transmission line outside of Geyserville owned by PG&E sparked the blaze, putting them firmly at fault for the fire.
These findings ultimately led to the decision to sue PG&E on Tuesday. The suit says that PG&E’s negligence caused the fire, and thus the company is now legally responsible for the fire it caused. While the lawsuit does not have any fixed amount for damages, the plaintiffs attorney, John Fiske, said that damages would most likely exceed $100 million.
“The legal allegations include inverse condemnation and negligence, among others, and seek damages for injury to and loss of public resources, including but not limited to land, roads, and environmental resources,” said Tuesday’s news release.
For PG&E, the Sonoma lawsuit is only the most recent in a string of wildfire lawsuits dating back to 2018. The largest suit, over the destruction of the town of Paradise from the PG&E caused Camp Fire in 2018, cost PG&E tens of billions of dollars in damages due to the massive destruction of the fire, as well as the company being held responsible for the deaths of the 84 residents killed during the blaze. The extreme high cost had caused the company to go bankrupt for almost an entire year, and almost led to the company being taken over by the state.
Response to the Kincade Fire lawsuit
PG&E responded to the new lawsuit on Tuesday, noting that the company had done all that they could and inspected the lines in the wildfire area shortly before the Kincade Fire started.
“PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We are grateful to the first responders who fought the 2019 Kincade Fire and helped make sure that no lives were lost,” said PG&E in their response.
“While we are continuing to conduct our own investigation into the events that led to the Kincade Fire, PG&E does not have access to CAL FIRE’s report, or any of the physical evidence that was collected as part of their investigation. The transmission tower in question was inspected multiple times in 2019 as part of our Wildfire Safety Inspection Program—inspectors both climbed the tower and performed an inspection by reviewing photographs taken by an aerial drone. All issues that were identified on the tower in question were resolved prior to the Kincade Fire with the exception of one, which related to the painting of the tower.
“At PG&E, we remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area while also limiting the scope and duration of Public Safety Power Shutoffs.”
Experts say that while PG&E is only barely starting to recover from the tens of billions paid out earlier this year to Paradise victims, they are likely going to have to pay a lot again.
“Compared to $25 billion, which is what they paid the victims, a few hundred million isn’t all that much,” explained former fire and arson investigator Oscar Chavez to the Globe. “But it’s still significant, still a pain to pay, and makes the company lose more face.
“And they aren’t exactly winning people over. PG&E has been found to have fallen back on line maintenance and repair, and as a result, fires started. The state doesn’t like all the damages they have caused and the public isn’t thrilled with them because they were responsible for the deaths of dozens of people, caused disasters, and have been continuously shutting off their power in Northern California.
“Trust in the company is at an all time low now. And the Kincade Fire lawsuit is only the latest reason it’s giving people for the low confidence in them.”
The trial is expected to begin sometime next year, with the exact date being dependent on several factors, including any future COVID-19 lockdowns.