Attorneys for PacifiCorp outlined Tuesday how they plan to defend against allegations the utility company’s equipment ignited several wildfires in 2020 that destroyed thousands of homes and property.
At one point, attorney Doug Dixon went as far as to call PacifiCorp’s actions during the Labor Day wildfires “extremely admirable” — a stark contrast to allegations from the plaintiff’s attorneys that the power giant’s negligence ignited devastating fires along the coast, Willamette Valley and in Southern Oregon.
The 2020 Labor Day fires were the most costly in Oregon history, killing nine people and burning more than 1 million acres. PacifiCorp is accused of leaving its lines energized throughout those fires, leading to ignitions at the Echo Mountain Complex, 242 Fire, South Obenchain Fire and Santiam Canyon Fire.
But Dixon forcefully disputed the characterization Tuesday that PacifiCorp was negligent, saying that plaintiffs in the $1.6 billion class action case are relying on hindsight to question the actions of PacifiCorp employees during a highly unpredictable natural disaster.
“The question is: Did they act reasonably in the moment? That’s the question you need to decide,” Dixon told jurors, according to a livestream of the trial provided by Courtroom View Network. “Pacific Power’s preparation for and activities during the Labor Day 2020 weekend were actually extremely admirable.”
Dixon downplayed the significance of fires near Gates in the Santiam Canyon and Chiloquin in Klamath County, where he admitted the equipment of Pacific Power — PacifiCorp’s Oregon business — had sparked due to fallen trees. He said those fires were either quickly contained or could not have reasonably been prevented.
“Pacific Power foresters can only do so much,” he said. “They can’t clear cut the forest, nor would we want them to.”
Whether PacifiCorp did enough to reasonably prevent wildfires is likely to be a core piece of the company’s defense during what could be a more than monthlong trial. Attorneys on Tuesday outlined how tree trimming is the largest portion of the company’s operational budget, and how internal communications show high level staffers asked for continuous updates on weather conditions throughout the Labor Day fires to determine if they needed to shut off power.
Dixon called wide scale shutoffs a “sledgehammer” approach in fire conditions, and a tactic that the Oregon Public Utilities Commission advises as only a last resort. The attorney argued that keeping electricity flowing allowed first responders and evacuees to have the tools they needed in 2020 to stay safe. Portland General Electric, the other major power provider in Oregon, did initiate widespread outages in the Mount Hood National Forest area due to red flag conditions.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, by contrast, said it was “unbelievable” that PacifiCorp kept its power lines energized even as more fires started and state officials implored all utilities to initiate shutdowns in high risk areas.
“If there’s no spark, it doesn’t matter if the wind is high and the ground is dry,” Nick Rosinia said in his opening remarks on behalf of people who lost homes in the fires. “(PacifiCorp has) known for years that utilities cause big, destructive wildfires. And they’ve known for years that one way to avoid that is to shut off the power.”
As OPB has previously reported, 911 calls from Sept. 7, 2020 indicate that people in the Santiam Canyon — including at least one firefighter — said at the time that they saw PacifiCorp equipment spark new fires.
The trial is likely the first time a utility has taken a class action lawsuit over wildfires before a jury rather than negotiate a settlement agreement with plaintiffs.
Tuesday’s remarks showed that over the coming weeks, jurors will hear from a wide range of experts, fire victims and company executives who will argue the key point of negligence. Among those that Dixon said PacifiCorp plans to call to the stand in their defense: Kristen Sheeran.
Sheeran worked as a climate policy advisor under former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown during the 2020 wildfires, and currently works as a senior director of sustainability for Portland General Electric.