PORTLAND — A complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court last week could create a class that includes Echo Mountain Complex fire victims.
The complaint filed Sept. 30 alleges that negligence on the part of Pacific Power and its parent company, Portland-based PacifiCorp, caused or increased the severity of fires that killed nine people and destroyed thousands of homes in Oregon beginning the evening of Labor Day, including almost 300 residences in north Lincoln County. The lawsuit was filed by three law firms, two in Portland and one in Seattle, on behalf of two lead plaintiffs in Linn County who lost their home, vehicles and all of their personal belongings to fires in Santiam Canyon.
Basis of Lawsuit
The allegation of negligence centers around two claims — that Pacific Power failed to take sufficient steps to mitigate the risk of wildfire by controlling vegetation near its equipment and installing anti-ignition measures; and it “failed to take even simple preventive measures — such as de-energizing their power lines” — after the National Weather Service forecasted extremely critical fire weather conditions for Labor Day.
The lawsuit seeks to create a class of victims who would be eligible for damages should the company be found liable, which might include anyone who sustained losses connected to Pacific Power’s alleged negligence. If a judge certifies the class, it will not be necessary for victims to formally join the suit. Class members would automatically be eligible for a portion of any jury award or settlement, depending on their damages.
The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said last month that downed power lines caused 13 separate fires along the Santiam Canyon, where Pacific Power operates distribution and transmission lines and where the lead plaintiffs’ home was located. However, officials have yet to announce a cause of most of the Labor Day blazes. Jim Gersbach, public affairs specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the cause of the Echo Mountain Complex fire was still under investigation, with no timeframe for when that investigation might be completed.
The News-Times has spoken to several witnesses who recounted seeing arcing electricity and subsequent flames in the vicinity of Echo Mountain the evening of Labor Day. Pacific Power is the sole electrical provider to the area.
In a press release Sept. 9, the company said it was “aware of unconfirmed reports that fires have been started by electrical equipment, however, until crews have greater access to the regions affected, this information cannot be verified.”
Pacific Power responds
In response to the News-Times’ inquiry regarding if and when power lines in the area of the Echo Mountain fire were de-energized, Pacific Power spokesman Drew Hanson provided the following statement, “We’re beginning a long journey ahead to support and rebuild our communities. We remain committed to understanding the totality of the Labor Day storm through a comprehensive and thoughtful investigation, and we stand ready to help rebuild in the coming weeks and months. At this time, we are working alongside state, federal officials and our own third-party investigators to understand the totality of the event, and cannot comment on pending investigation work, including details about de-energizing lines.”
According to February testimony to the Public Utility Commission of Oregon, Pacific Power invested more than $500,000 into fire mitigation measures in the state during 2019, and it planned more than $10 million in such efforts this year, including system hardening, advanced protection and control equipment, and the addition and improvement of access roads. A May 21 report from the company detailed areas of the state it identified as at a particularly high risk for fire and subject to potential public safety power shutoffs, which, for the most part, do not overlap with the locations of this year’s catastrophic fires. Potential public safety power shutoff areas are identified on the Pacific Power website at tinyurl.com/y4yh4gk7.
Significant potential liability
The company faces significant potential liability if its equipment or actions are found to be the cause of the Echo Mountain Complex fire or others in the state (it also operates lines in the areas of the Almeda and Archie Creek fires). Last year, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric reached a $13.5 billion agreement to settle claims associated with four fires in that state from 2015 to 2018, and in June, pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise. PacifiCorp is a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, the eighth largest company in the world and the world’s largest financial services firm by revenue.
Cody Berne, attorney with Portland law firm Stoll Berne, one of the three firms representing plaintiffs in the case, told the News-Times it had spoken to victims of the Echo Mountain Complex fire. “Based on our investigation, we believe power lines owned or operated by Pacific Power or PacifiCorp started fires in the Echo Mountain Complex,” he said.
Making fire victims whole
Daniel Mensher, an attorney with Seattle’s Keller Rohrback, another of the firms involved, told the News-Times, “This class action is about making sure people who were harmed by Pacific Power and the decisions that they made, or didn’t make, are made whole or at least financially compensated for their losses. Obviously, money isn’t going to bring everything back. Some of these communities will be changed for a long time. The second part is making sure Pacific Power has a powerful incentive to change their ways.”
In addition to a full accounting of damages, the complaint seeks an injunction requiring Pacific Power to de-energize equipment in the event of future critical fire weather.
Although he could not speak to the existence of local complainants, Mensher said, “Anyone who is interested, I would be happy to speak with them. Oregon is a very special place to me and the other attorneys in this case, and the people in Oregon matter a lot to me. If people have questions, they don’t have to call me and say, ‘I want to be your client.’ They can just call me and ask questions.” He advised Echo Mountain Complex fire victims to keep detailed records of their losses.
Pacific Power not alone
Pacific Power is not alone in its potential exposure. As The Oregonian reported, Lane Electric Cooperative and the Eugene Water and Electric Board are local service providers in the area of the Holiday Farm fire; Portland General Electric (which did de-energize some lines as a preventive measure) owns high-voltage lines in Santiam Canyon and is the local service provider in the area of the Riverside fire; and the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency, owns equipment in multiple effected areas.