Science & Environment

Four Labor Day fires likely caused by PacifiCorp equipment, investigator finds

By Cassandra Profita (OPB)
Oct. 29, 2021 1:12 a.m.
An image of a fire truck alongside a fire on the side of the highway in Gates on Sept. 7, 2020.

As winds spread multiple fires through the town of Gates late into the night on Sept. 7, 2020, firefighters were overwhelmed and eventually had to evacuate themselves.

Courtesy of Dave Ewing

Four of the fires that burned across Oregon on Labor Day of 2020 were likely caused by equipment owned by PacifiCorp, according to a fire investigator hired by the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit.


The fires burned more than a million acres across the state, destroyed thousands of homes and killed nine people.

They were fueled by high winds, but a class action lawsuit filed by three Pacific Northwest law firms also blames PacifiCorp for some of the resulting damage because the utility failed to shut off its power lines during the windstorm.

In a legal filing Tuesday, lawyers with Keller Rohrback LLP, Stoll Berne and Nick Kahl LLC shared a report from the hired fire investigator who found PacifiCorp’s electrical equipment likely caused or contributed to the spread of the Echo Mountain fire east of Lincoln City, the South Obenchain and the 2-4-2 fires in Southern Oregon, and the Santiam Canyon fires east of Salem.

They’re asking the court to certify a class of people who were harmed by those fires so they may one day be awarded damages in the case. Using the fire boundaries, evidence of fire damage and property records, the filing defines a group of owners, residents and tenants of 2,454 properties, about half of which are in the Santiam Canyon fire area.

PacifiCorp has disputed many of the charges in its own legal filings but declined to comment on pending litigation.

The documents filed Tuesday include a report from fire investigator Nicole Brewer with Envista Forensics, who has worked as a senior fire investigator for Portland Fire and Rescue for 14 years.

Brewer reviewed available evidence including public records, documents from PacifiCorp, eyewitness testimony, burned sites and equipment.


Related: Residents of Gates, Oregon, aim their ire at Pacific Power nearly a year after their town burned

In her report, she acknowledges that she didn’t have full access to all public reports and that a full, detailed examination of the fires will still be required to identify specific causes.

“While hot, dry and windy weather conditions certainly contributed to the rapid spread of fire through these areas, weather conditions did not provide the initial ignition sources that sparked these fires into existence,” Brewer wrote in her report. “Had they been utilized, Public Safety Power Shutoffs could have eliminated the sources of ignition that very likely caused and or contributed to the fires.”

Oregon residents who lost their homes in the Labor Day fires blame PacifiCorp for not shutting off the power, especially after witnesses reported live power lines falling into trees and starting fires.

In the Santiam Canyon, dispatchers fielded multiple calls from people who saw power lines arcing and even starting a fire at the Gates School, where crews fighting the nearby Beachie Creek Wildfire were stationed and had to be evacuated.

The company is facing multiple lawsuits including two class action suits and two wrongful death suits. State and federal investigations into the causes of the Labor Day fires are still ongoing.