Recent Wildfire News & Developments
June 8, 2018
Press Conference on Cal Fire Report & PG&E Negligence
In the video below, one of our Wildfire Victim Advocate Consortium partners, Frank Pitre, leads a press conference discussing Friday’s Cal Fire report on the causes of 12 of the 2017 Northern California wildfires and speaks in detail regarding the directly related PG&E negligence.
June 8, 2018
Additional Cal Fire Reports Released – PG&E Blamed for 12 Nor-Cal Wildfires
Cal Fire announced today “after extensive and thorough investigations” that 12 of the Northern California Wildfires were caused by “electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles.” The 12 fires referred to in the report are the Redwood, Sulphur, Cherokee, Blue, Norrbom, Adobe, Partrick, Pythian, Nuns, Pocket, Atlas and “37” Fire in Sonoma County. The report goes into detail regarding the cause of each fire.
Cal Fire investigations will continue and additional reports will be released as they are compiled. The report on the Tubbs Fire, one of the most devastating, is still forthcoming. California state senator, Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno, where the PG&E explosion killed eight, had already stated intention to break up the utility if Cal Fire blames the North Bay wildfires on PG&E negligence.
PG&E issued a press release in response to Cal Fire’s announcement, saying that the company still maintains that its “overall programs met our state’s high standards.” They also referred in the release to a “new normal” that requires new solutions. PG&E has already been the focus on more than 100 lawsuits related to the fires and some are speculating whether the utility can withstand the financial hit, if held responsible for additional fires, such as the Tubbs fire.
According to the report, Cal Fire’s investigations have been referred to the appropriate county District Attorney’s offices for review.
May 25, 2018
First Cal Fire Reports Released – Sonoma & Napa County Expected Soon
Cal Fire released a report today that found PG&E power lines were responsible for four Northern California wildfires in Butte and Nevada Counties last October. Investigations into three of those four fires found evidence that PG&E had violated Public Resources Code Section 4293 and may be held criminally liable for its failure to manage vegetation in proximity of the power lines they manage.
No official causes have been announced in the contemporaneous fires that devastated the North Bay region yet, including the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, Redwood Valley, Cascade, Sulphur and Pocket fires. Cal Fire is likely to announce those officials reports in the coming weeks. Like the Butte and Nevada County fires, many clues suggest that PG&E power lines and other equipment buffeted by heavy winds also caused or contributed to the most costly fire storm in California history.
On October 8, during a wind storm where gusts hit hurricane levels, several fires kicked up throughout the North Bay Region. More than 40 people died, hundreds were burned or injured, thousands were displaced, and over 10,000 homes and structures were lost. Soon after the fire, it became clear that there was no singular or dominant cause, and that it would take time to complete the investigation. But even in those early days, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “power lines, like the ones laying amid burned braches and grass at some of the suspected origin points in Napa and Sonoma counties, can start fires in a variety of ways.”
Later, in February, The Press Democrat reported that “Santa Rosa city fire investigators have determined that PG&E power lines buffeted by heavy winds the night of Oct. 8 ignited at least two small fires in city neighborhoods”, and that “the fire damage to the site was a direct result of the high winds causing the power lines to arc, starting a fire in the combustible vegetation.” In March, the San Francisco Chronicle further reported that, “in the months since the fires erupted, no evidence has emerged in public pointing to any explanation other than power lines swaying, arcing and falling in the wind.”
Although a source for the fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties have not been announced yet, the likelihood that PG&E equipment and procedural failures caused most or all of the fires prompted thousands of lawsuits that have been consolidated into a coordinated litigation led by our firm, Walkup Melodia Kelly & Schoenberger, and the Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP and Robins Cloud LLP lawfirms. PG&E has a past history of failing to properly maintain its equipment, and siphoning away money from maintenance into profits. We suspect that PG&E is responsible for these fires, and we will know soon what Cal Fire determines caused them.
May 25, 2018
Liability Discovery Efforts Underway
Walkup Melodia, in association with our consortium partners, Abbey, Weitzenberg, et. al., Cotchett, Pitre, & McCarthy LLP, Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, Dreyer Babich Buccuola Wood Campora LLP, have started the process of obtaining information from PG&E through the discovery process. We have sent deposition notices and requests for production of documents and electronically stored information that we expect to contain millions of pages related to PG&E’s compliance and safety record. These records will show the degree with which PG&E complies with state liability law, published vegetation management plans and programs, and their own internal safety guidelines. Simultaneously, our experts and investigators are inspecting physical evidence collected in connection with the fires, and we are hard at work evaluating the impact and losses suffered by North Bay residents and businesses.
May 24, 2018
PG&E’s Bid to Avoid Inverse Condemnation Liability Rejected
On May 22, 2018, Superior Court Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow, the San Francisco-based trial judge overseeing the coordinated California North Bay Fires litigation, rejected PG&E’s plea to drop inverse condemnation liability claims – an important step on the path to fair compensation under constitutionally protected eminent domain principals.
PG&E’s lawyers argued that, “regardless of [even the] most egregious fault . . . unless PG&E has an absolute insurance policy from the CPUC, and is absolutely 100% guaranteed reimbursements, [victims] cannot have inverse condemnation.” However, the judge concluded that “it is not arbitrary or irrational to require a privately owned utility, which has been granted a monopoly or quasi-monopoly status by the state and which is authorized to pass its costs to its ratepayers upon satisfying a prudent manager standard, to pay property owners for the damages caused by its instrumentalities.”
Order Overruling PG&E’s Demurrers: Click here to read the court order.
March 29, 2018
PG&E Execs Get Millions In Bonuses While Seeking To Pay Homeowners Nothing
In mid-March we learned that PG&E was engaged in an expensive and comprehensive “backroom politics” campaign lobbying California state legislators to change current liability laws to immunize PG&E from responsibility in the North Bay firestorms. PG&E is seeking financial immunity from the state legislature, a change in the law of inverse condemnation, and the creation of liability hurdles to make it impossible for homeowners to be made whole.
The California Constitution provides that where a public utility takes property without just compensation, it is liable under the doctrine of inverse condemnation. PG&E is seeking to overturn that law.
PG&E went to Sacramento and floated an analogy to legislators that “if a drunk driver hits a utility pole, and the utility wire drops to the ground and starts a fire, then PG&E is unfairly liable for inverse condemnation”. That false premise struck a sympathetic chord with some legislators. But the analogy is wrong.
Although final reports of investigative agencies have not yet been issued, it is clear that the North Bay fires did not happen as the result of a drunk driver. The truth is that PG&E did not follow its own internal guidelines for line maintenance, recloser performance, vegetation management, and a host of other safety-related mandates. PG&E failed in its obligation to be safe.
Now we learn that while PG&E was not following its own internal guidelines or PUC requirements, it’s CEO (who has been openly barnstorming and speaking to legislators to have these liability changes to insulate and protect PG&E) had her personal compensation double during 2017 to more than $8 million. (https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2018/03/28/pg-e-geisha-williams-compensation-wine-country.html)
PG&E CEO Geisha Williams took over as CEO in March 2017, saw her total compensation increase from $4.16 million in 2016 to $8.56 million last year. She wasn’t alone in getting a pay bump. PG&E President and Chief Operating Officer Nickolas Stavropoulos received a raise from $3.93 million to $6.42 million.
With thousands of citizens homeless or deprived of their possessions because their insurance limits were inadequate, PG&E has not agreed to pay for its wrongdoing. Instead it has begun a legislative push to relieve it of the obligation to pay for wildfire.
This conduct is reprehensible. PG&E’s history of failing to act in a safe and prudent way in the past is well-documented. Rewarding upper management with million-dollar bonuses in a year when PG&E has left thousands of people homeless is repugnant.
As State Sen. Gerry Hill has commented, “PG&E’s entire PR campaign, as well as their elimination of dividends, is designed just to sway public and legislative opinion so they can get a reprieve from the Legislature.”
March 13, 2018
SAN FRANCISCO: Wildfire Victim Advocates Attorneys Michael Kelly & Frank Pitre Named Co-Lead Counsel In California North Bay Fires Litigation
Wildfire Victim Advocates legal group proudly announces attorneys Michael Kelly of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger and Frank Pitre of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP have been named as Co-Lead Counsel, representing thousands of individual plaintiffs filing lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric Company and PG&E Corporation as a result of the North Bay Fires. The appointment was made following the first case management hearing in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, February 27 and signed by Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow on March 6, 2018.
“It is an honor to be placed in a position of such responsibility,” said Kelly. “The damage, loss and harm our friends and neighbors have endured as a result of the North Bay Fires has been catastrophic and we’re ready to get to work, moving the claims for damage from all of the PG&E originated fires to resolution. Our goal is justice for the victims and the survivors.”
Serving as Co-Lead Counsel with Kelly and Pitre is Bill Robins III of Robins Cloud LLP. Together, these three head a team of more than 30 firms who will be responsible for overseeing and coordinating all pretrial activities in the complex litigation, including the briefing, filing and arguing of motions, taking all discovery, as well as appearing before the court at all court ordered proceedings and presenting cases at trial for the individual plaintiffs.
JANUARY 3 PG&E DISCLOSURES LINK PG&E EQUIPMENT TO START OF DEADLY FIRES
A report in the January 4, 2018 Santa Rosa Press Democrat confirmed that Damaged PG&E equipment was found near origins of North Bay fires.
The CPUC has now released previously withheld details in reports filed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. revealing the exact location of damaged transmission equipment found near the ignition points of the wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties in October.
The documents provide information about the proximity of PG&E equipment to the origins of the Oct. 8 fires.
Redacted versions of the reports were released by the state Public Utilities Commission late last year. The PUC has now posted unredacted versions of the reports online.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility is fully cooperating with the investigation and is focused on helping its customers rebuild.
In its report, PG&E notes that during winds up to 58 mph, the top of an alder tree “broke and fell on an open wire secondary service” triggering the Nuns fire. In addition to the Nuns fire, three other fires appear to have started in locations at or near the addresses where damaged PG&E equipment was discovered. These include:
- 4011 Atlas Peak Road, north of Napa, near the suspected start of the 51,642-acre Atlas fire;
- 1721 Partrick Road, west of Napa, near where the Partrick fire, which merged with the Nuns fire, is believed to have started; and
- 1128 Bennett Lane, Calistoga, near where the 36,807-acre Tubbs fire, the most destructive in state history, is believed to have begun.
PG&E has raised the possibility that power equipment “owned, installed and maintained by a third party” in Calistoga might be responsible for the Tubbs fire. But there is no hard evidence supporting this claim
Cal Fire has not publicized a cause for any of the fires. There is no standard time frame for how long fire investigations take.