One of the Northwest’s biggest private utilities faces a class action lawsuit for allegedly failing to maintain power lines that caused a significant portion of the catastrophic Labor Day wildfires in Oregon.
The suit was filed Wednesday in the Multnomah County Circuit Court by three Pacific Northwest law firms: Keller Rohrback LLP, Stoll Berne and Nick Kahl LLC.
PacifiCorp and one of its divisions, Pacific Power, were named in the suit. The suit also alleges the utilities failed to take simple measures, like cutting off power in high-risk areas to prevent tragic loss.
“Many of these fires were not ignited by lightning or careless campers. Instead, these fires were whipped to their overwhelming size by a series of ignitions caused by these defendants' power lines,” said Daniel Mensher, a partner at Keller Rohrback and a former environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.
Fire officials have already determined downed power lines caused at least 13 wildfires that week. Dry, high east winds blew west of the Cascades for nearly four days, contributing both to the downing of power lines and to the furnace-blast effect that caused the fires to grow so large, racing down canyons and valleys.
The east winds reignited three wildfires: the Lionshead Fire on the Warms Springs Reservation, the Beachie Creek Fire on the Willamette National Forest east of Salem, and the Holiday Farm Fire 3 miles west of McKenzie Bridge in Lane County. These fires alone have collectively burned more than 570,000 acres as of Thursday.
Firefighting conditions were so dangerous during that week that fire crews focused on rescue efforts rather than fighting fires.
Nick Kahl is one of the attorneys with the lawsuit. He said other local utilities across the state turned off power to prevent tragic losses when news came of the high east winds that would be in the region by Sept. 7.
He says the weather and fire conditions across the state amounted to the perfect storm, but that it came with warning. PacifiCorp had plenty of time to safely shut off power, he said, but it failed to take those simple measures to prevent sparking more wildfires.
“If you don’t do that and other utilities in the same exact position as you do, I don’t know how you can try to claim what you did was reasonable, especially when you look at the consequences,” Kahl said.
On Thursday, during a special meeting of the Oregon Public Utility Commission, several telecommunications and utility companies gave damage and restoration updates.
Pacific Northwest utilities including PacifiCorp, which covers more than 21,000 square miles of service territory, said the devastation from the Labor Day wildfires has created a long road to recovery and rebuilding in affected cities.
PacifiCorp vice president David Lucas said that in rare instances, such as when the high east winds blew up Oregon’s fires last month, his company does resort to shutting off power in high-risk areas.
“As we’ve learned through extensive, local community engagement, public safety power shutoff events must be properly planned and coordinated, so that our loss of power does not have unintended consequences of actually increasing public safety risk,” Lucas said.
He said it was vital to ensure the utility is providing power to critical facilities like fire, police, water districts, communications companies and other local emergency response, to help with fire suppression and other emergencies that may occur.
In the Medford area, Lucas said the utility did not meet protocols for using a public safety power shutoff in high-risk areas, but they did “de-energize lines at the request of local emergency agencies to allow firefighters to do their job safety and to assist in removing debris to unblock roadways.”
Stoll Berne attorney and shareholder Yoona Park said the assertion by PacifiCorp that it kept power on in certain areas for communications efforts for first responders is astounding.
“These are people’s lives, these are people’s homes,” Park said. “It was a perfect storm that required something to spark it and that thing that sparked, it could have been shut off.”
Other utilities, including Portland General Electric, Avista Utilities and NW Natural, said they are working diligently on getting power and gas restored to customers as quickly as they can.
A spokesperson said PacifiCorp does not comment directly on active litigation.
In 2018, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric company faced similar scrutiny after 85 people died in the deadly Camp Fire. PG&E was sued and agreed to pay a $13.5 billion settlement.