The utility PacifiCorp has been ordered to pay millions — and potentially billions of dollars — for its role in starting wildfires during Oregon’s devastating 2020 fire season. That’s after a jury ruled June 12 that the company’s equipment helped start or fuel the Santiam Canyon, South Obenchain, 242 and Echo Mountain Complex fires.
As the climate warms, the risk of major wildfires is growing, and PacifiCorp is not the only utility to face blame for their role in sparking them.
California’s Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after a flood of lawsuits related to deadly wildfires.
And this month, an investigation found that the utility Xcel Energy helped start the destructive 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado. That company is also facing a lawsuit.
“The reality is that climate change is increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the West,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Standford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.
Wara, who has also served as a wildfire commissioner in California, said utilities are talking much more now about what they need to do to prevent wildfires than they were in the 2010s. That’s because hotter and drier conditions, as well as windy weather events like those that fueled Oregon’s Labor Day fires, are becoming more frequent as global temperatures rise. The result is more megafires.
“Another way to frame this is that the standard of care has changed in the Western U.S.,” Wara said. “It is no longer acceptable to have downed lines that are igniting wildfires.”
Wara said in cases like PacifiCorp’s, where there is documented evidence of power equipment starting fires, it’s likely that a jury will rule against the utility unless it can show it did everything in its power to prevent those fires.
“You’re always gonna have a jury composed of people that either live in the community or live near to the community that was devastated,” he said. “And so those people are naturally predisposed to feel sympathy for the victims.
Some utilities are starting to adapt. PG&E has taken a more proactive approach to turning off power since the deadly Camp Fire in 2018 that it helped spark. Even PacifiCorp has been more inclined to turn electricity off during the risky weather events, something that didn’t happen in 2020.
PacifiCorp has also invested in more staff members who monitor weather internally and micro weather stations, up to more than 100 across Oregon from just around a dozen in 2020.
These changes will cost utilities a lot of money in coming years, and that may mean additional costs to customers, Wara said. But he views the changes as essential.
“The old way of doing business is not acceptable given the changing risk and the expectations of the public, it is simply not acceptable,” he said.
Despite last week’s ruling that found PacifiCorp negligent in how it handled the 2020 wildfire season, Wara said he’s optimistic that utilities across the West are learning lessons and taking fire danger more seriously. He said if they continue to invest in mitigation efforts, the risks of power companies starting fires should decline.