'Pretty overwhelming' evidence against PG&E in deadly Paradise fire, says attorney suing CA utility

  • An attorney for a group of victims of the so-called Camp fire in Northern California on Wednesday alleged that there's "pretty overwhelming" evidence that PG&E was at fault for the deadliest wildfire in the state's history.
  • "In this case we know an awful lot," said Bay Area attorney Michael Danko, who represents a group of plaintiffs who lost homes and possessions in the town of Paradise and the surrounding area.
  • The attorney also claims the utility has a pattern of not shutting off power to prevent fires.
  • PG&E said "safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our highest priority" and added that the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.
A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. 
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. 

An attorney for a group of victims of the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California on Wednesday alleged that there's "pretty overwhelming" evidence that PG&E was at fault for the deadliest wildfire in the state's history.

The blaze, which has burned an estimated 135,000 acres, has been blamed for at least 56 fatalities and the loss of nearly 9,000 structures. Cal Fire has stated that the cause of the fire remains "under investigation."

"In this case we know an awful lot," said Oakland attorney Michael Danko, who represents a group of plaintiffs who lost homes and possessions in the town of Paradise and the surrounding area. He said information includes witnesses as well as a PG&E safety incident report made to the California Public Utilities Commission about problems with equipment near where the fire is believed to have started.

The lawsuit against PG&E was filed in San Francisco Superior Court and accuses the utility of negligence in the destructive wildfire. The lawsuit includes about two dozen plaintiffs and seeks unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.

The Camp Fire destroyed much of the town of Paradise as well as portions of nearby Concow and Magalia in Butte County. Authorities say 130 people remain missing.

"Rather than spend the money it obtains from customers for infrastructure maintenance and safety, PG&E funnels this funding to boost its own corporate profits and compensation," according to the complaint.

PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado said in an email Wednesday that the San Francisco-based utility giant is aware of lawsuits in connection with the fire and added, "It's important to remember that the cause has yet to be determined."

The utility warned in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Nov. 9 it could potentially face "significant liability in excess of insurance coverage." PG&E's stock price has fallen nearly 50 percent in value since the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8. That includes Wednesday's drop of about 21 percent.

"We have the neighbor who got the email concerning the sparking wires," Danko said. "We have the witnesses who saw the fire start on a transmission line. And most importantly, we have the report that PG&E was required to make by law to the CPUC, reporting an outage minutes before the witnesses saw the fire start under the transmission lines. So the evidence already is pretty overwhelming."

An electric safety incident report filed Nov. 8 by PG&E indicated that the utility's transmission line "experienced an outage" that morning. Then in the afternoon PG&E "observed by aerial patrol damage to a transmission tower" located about "one mile north-east of the town of Pulga, in the area of the Camp Fire."

The site near Pulga is now being protected as investigators continue their probe. The Camp Fire was 35 percent contained early Wednesday, according to Cal Fire.

Danko also represents a group of plaintiffs suing PG&E over the 2017 wine country fires, a group of Northern California blazes. Cal Fire has pinned the blame on PG&E in at least 16 wildfires in last year's fire siege, including some blazes with fatalities.

According to Danko, other California utilities do a better job of "mitigating the risk. For example, in Southern California when there are windy conditions, the utilities as a matter of routine for some time have shut off the power so that if the lines come down it won't spark a fire. That's something that PG&E never did until after the wine country fires."

The attorney claims PG&E sent out emails indicating it would shut off power before the Camp Fire but didn't do it. "Their meteorologists were watching the conditions, and then they decided not to," he said. "They decided to leave the power on."

PG&E's Tostado said, "The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our highest priority. Right now, our primary focus is on the communities, supporting first responders and getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access, so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers."

The electrical outage that PG&E experienced in Butte County was to a 115kV transmission line and the damage observed near the fire was to a 115kV transmission line. The utility spokesperson said "115kV transmission lines are not currently part of the Public Safety Power Shutoff program due to a variety of safety and regulatory factors."

Still, Danko alleges that PG&E has "nefarious" reasons for keeping the power on.

"PG&E does not want to shut off power for the reason that management bonuses are tied not to safety, but rather the lack of customer complaints," Danko said. He said when the power is shut off to customers they complain so management is therefore hesitant to flip the power off.

Danko said he plans to subpoena PG&E's witnesses and their documents to get even more information on the incident.

Earlier this year, PG&E and its parent renewed liability insurance coverage for wildfire events for approximately $1.4 billion, covering the period from Aug. 1, 2018, through July 31, 2019.

The state legislature already has given PG&E some relief that allows them in the event of a wildfire to sell bonds to essentially pay for damages. That relief, known as state Senate Bill 901, was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 21 and followed the catastrophic wine country fires last year.

"If they file bankruptcy, so be it," said Danko. "That means that ultimately their equipment is essentially auctioned off. Perhaps someone more responsible will end up operating the electric and gas facilities."