Lawsuits continue to mount against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) blaming the California utility giant for the deadly wildfires that swept through several Northern California counties last month, killing 43 people and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
The precise causes of the wildfires, the deadliest in California’s history, have not been determined, but “preliminary investigations suggest that this fire might have been caused by electrical equipment that was owned, installed and maintained by a third party,” PG&E attorneys wrote in court documents, according to The Mercury News.
The October wildfires decimated large swaths of the state’s Wine Country, consuming a quarter million acres and damaging or destroying 14,700 homes, 728 businesses, and 3,600 vehicles, The Mercury News reported.
Among the victims of the wildfires suing PG&E are former San Francisco mayor Frank Jordan and his wife, who fled their Santa Rosa home along with some guests and a handful of photographs before the blaze swept through their property, destroying their house, guest house, and all their belongings.
According to The Mercury News, California regulators said that “PG&E reported at least 17 ‘electric safety incidents’ across eight counties the night of [the] destructive Wine Country fires, blaming downed trees and heavy winds for damaging power lines and other equipment …”
PG&E is responsible for maintaining its power lines and the vegetation around them. The night the fires started, the utility “reported widespread problems with its power lines and nearby trees,” The Mecury News reported. These reports included downed power lines and broken trees on Oct. 8 and 9 in at least four Sonoma County locations where some of the heaviest damage occurred. There was also tree damage in at least three locations in Napa County, as well as Mendocino, Nevada, and Butte Counties, which also suffered heavy damage from the fires.
The lawsuits allege that PG&E failed to follow mandatory safety practices and disregarded foreseeable hazardous risks by failing to identify, inspect, manage, and control the growth of vegetation near its power lines and other electrical equipment, according to The Mercury News.
The lawsuits detail how PG&E’s alleged failures could have triggered a fire, focusing on the utility’s use of reclosers, which can restart power after an interruption in service lines by sending electrical impulses through them. If those lines are in contact with trees and other debris, they can ignite a fire. Plaintiffs allege that PG&E’s use of reclosers was widespread when the blazes started.
The accusations come less than a year after PG&E became a convicted felon for crimes it committed before and after the San Bruno gas line explosions, which destroyed a San Bruno neighborhood and killed eight people in 2010. Last year, PG&E was ordered to pay $1.6 billion in connection with the San Bruno disaster. That fine was the largest penalty ever levied against a U.S. utility.