USA – Another group of home and business owners – this time victims of the Slater fire in Northern California and Southern Oregon – have filed a lawsuit alleging PacifiCorp was negligent in failing to maintain its transmission lines and de-energize them in advance of the conflagration that burned more than 157,000 acres, destroyed 700 structures and killed one person.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of California in Sacramento on behalf of about 50 plaintiffs, makes various claims against the utility for wrongful death, injuries and damages, including trespass, nuisance and negligence.
Similar lawsuits have been filed against the utility in Oregon by victims of the wildfires in the Santiam Canyon and more could be in the offing. PacifiCorp is the local electric provider and operates high-voltage transmission lines in areas impacted by the Slater fire, the Beachie Creek fire east of Salem, the Archie Creek fire in the Umpqua National Forest, the Echo Mountain Complex near Lincoln City, and the South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point.
Gerald Singleton, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, says it includes a few homeowners in Oregon, though they are primarily Californian. He said California law allows victims to recover a much larger extent of their losses, including non-economic damages, than Oregon, which places various caps on recovery. Many plaintiffs in California wildfire cases – including this one — make claims for inverse condemnation, which is essentially the flip side of eminent domain, and alleges that a quasi-governmental entity such as a utility has illegally deprived owners of the use of their property, he said.
PacifiCorp spokesman Drew Hanson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
The Slater fire started the morning of Sept. 8 near the Slater Butte fire lookout, just north of the town of Happy Camp. Driven by the same stiff easterly winds that bellowed fires up and down the west side of the Cascades in Oregon, the Slater fire pushed northwest across the state line and into Oregon’s Illinois Valley.
The cause is still officially under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service.
PacifiCorp operates both a high voltage transmission line and local distribution lines directly in the area of the fire start and anecdotal accounts have suggested power lines were to blame. PacifiCorp had previously identified the Happy Camp area as one of high wildfire risk within its service territory, but did not institute a preemptive black out despite warnings of extreme wildfire risk from the National Weather Service in the days before the fire.
Singleton said his investigators have been on the scene and interviewed various parties and they believe the fire has the hallmarks of being started by a power line contacting dry vegetation. He said his team will get to view evidence gathered by Forest Service investigators during the discovery process, likely sometime in late spring.