California has experienced catastrophic wildfire seasons for over a decade. For the past couple of years, we’ve had both the largest wildfire in modern history and the most destructive wildfire occurring within months of each other.
Power Company Negligence Causes Most Wildfires
Improperly maintained electrical power lines cause many California wildfires. Negligence causes over 95% of all wildfires in California, and power lines are a common cause of such fires. This is one reason California has strict regulations on power line maintenance to minimize the risk they will spark a wildfire.
Since 2014, California utilities have been required to report each fire incident on one of their power lines. Of the 2,009 incidents reported since 2014, PG&E lines were responsible for 1,552 of these fires. So Cal Edison, which serves a customer base almost identical in size to PG&E, reported 347 incidents by comparison.
California Fire (CAL Fire) conducts investigations to determine the cause of all significant wildfires in California. In the 2017 and 2018 fire outbreaks, CAL Fire found public utilities responsible for starting many of the most destructive fires.
In May 2018, CAL Fire concluded its investigation into the causes of four wildfires that raged through Butte and Nevada Counties in October 2017. CAL Fire determined that PG&E power lines were involved in igniting each fire (the La Porte Fire, the McCourtney Fire, the Lobo Fire, and the Honey Fire). Indeed, CAL Fire pointed to specific violations of California law committed by PG&E in three of these fires, including failing to ensure proper clearance between trees and the power lines at the ignition points of these blazes.
In June 2018, CAL Fire announced the results of its investigations into 12 wildfires that ravaged Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake, and Napa counties in the October 2017 wildfire outbreak. PG&E power lines were the ignition source or an ignition source in all 12 fires. The Redwood Fire in Mendocino County burned over 36,000 acres, destroyed 543 structures, killed nine people, and was caused by trees or limbs falling onto PG&E power lines.
The Atlas Fire in Napa County burned 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures, and caused six deaths. CAL Fire found two ignition sites, one caused by a limb coming into contact with a PG&E power line and a second caused by another limb falling onto the same power line at a different location. The Norrborn, Adobe, Patrick, Pythian, and Nuns Fire were a series of separate fires that merged in Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying a combined 56,556 acres, destroying 1,355 structures, and causing the deaths of 3 people. The ignition source for each of these fires involved PG&E power lines.
In October 2018, CAL Fire announced that the cause of the Cascade Fire in Yuba County, which destroyed 264 structures and 9,989 acres and killed four people, was a power line sag on two conductors, causing them to come into contact creating an electrical arc. This type of situation is called a “line slap.” PG&E owned the power line.
CAL Fire referred the results of several of these investigations to the District Attorney’s Offices of the fire-damaged counties due to evidence indicating PG&E violated state law in the maintenance of its power lines.
This would not be the first occasion that one or more of the California utilities were found to be criminally at fault in igniting a wildfire. PG&E was subject to a criminal indictment for causing a 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and injured 58. PG&E was fined $1.6 billion for the explosion after being found guilty of six felony charges by a federal jury. The explosion was due to faulty record-keeping and shoddy maintenance by PG&E.
Other significant wildfires that utility companies were found to have caused include the 2015 Butte Fire, caused by a negligently maintained PG&E power line that destroyed 70,868 acres and 800 structures and caused two fatalities, and the 2007 Witch-Guejito Fires caused by poorly maintained SDG&E power lines that destroyed 247,000 acres, 1,800 structures including 1,265 homes and caused two deaths.
Damages From California Wildfire Lawsuits
While many wildfire victims have insurance, the amount is usually insufficient to rebuild or replace the home entirely, and the property destroyed to pre-fire condition.
Insurance is also typically inadequate to compensate victims for all personal property lost, not to mention the unique items that have little to no intrinsic value but are priceless to the owners.
Unfortunately, many have no insurance coverage and depend upon FEMA aid, which is usually inadequate to completely rebuild or replace lost property.
A civil lawsuit can ensure that all your losses are recouped instead of being limited by the scope or amount of your insurance.
While many people insure the cost to replace or rebuild their home, the contents of the house and other personal property, as well as trees, flowers, plants, and other landscaping, are frequently underinsured. Replacing these items can significantly exceed the cost of repairing the home.
Several types of damages are recoverable in a wildfire lawsuit. Wildfires commonly cause fatalities and physical injuries. Persons who suffered a personal injury may be able to recover (1) reimbursement for medical expenses, both past and future; (2) pain and suffering damages (both past and future); and (3) lost past income due to missed work as well as any loss of future income from the fires.
For property damage, wildfire victims may recover the cost of repairing or replacing: (1) lost homes and other structures; (2) lost personal property, including automobiles, furniture, and pets; (3) lost trees and landscaping; (4) damaged property such as swimming pools, retaining walls and fences; and (5) erosion damage.
Reimbursement for evacuation and temporary displacement damages can also be sought.
Wildfire victims may also seek compensation for any emotional or psychological damages from the fires, such as mental anguish, emotional distress and inconvenience, and annoyance.
The costs associated with these wildfires, in terms of lives lost, homes and businesses burned, and the financial costs to fight these fires and repair the immense damage they cause, demand that we take every possible step to minimize them. This includes ensuring the various utility companies in California properly service and maintain their power lines, power poles, and transformers and designing these devices in the safest manner possible. This is particularly important during times of the year when Southern California experiences the Santa Ana winds and Northern California the Diablo winds.
It is only fair that the party or parties responsible for these horrific wildfires pays for the damages they have caused. The victims of these fires and the taxpayers should not bear the costs now billions of dollars a year.
Wildfire lawsuits should also deter PG&E, So Cal Edison, and other utility companies from improperly maintaining their power lines and other equipment. Only by making the cost of not maintaining the power lines greater than the cost of providing proper maintenance will PG&E and other utilities ensure adequate care.
Doyle APC lawyers have significant wildfire litigation experience, having represented hundreds of families whose homes and businesses were destroyed by California wildfires.
Wildfire litigation is highly complex. Numerous experts are frequently required to prove liability, including meteorological experts, wildfire investigation experts, and experts in power line maintenance. But more importantly, are the experts needed to establish a homeowner’s or business owner’s losses. This includes builders to ensure adequate repair or rebuild costs, arborists, erosion experts, and landscape economists to ensure the cost to replace lost trees, plants, and other landscaping is appropriately calculated.
The Thomas Wildfire and Montecito Mudslides
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire erupted in Ventura County. It ended up as the largest wildfire in modern history in terms of acreage burned, destroying over 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties before it was contained.
The Thomas Fire destroyed over 1,063 homes and businesses. The Thomas Fire took over 8,500 firefighters to fight, the largest mobilization to combat a wildfire in California history. The fire became so large and powerful that it generated its own weather, a so-called “firestorm.”
There were two ignition points for the Thomas Fire, which started less than 30 minutes apart. The first began at 6:26 p.m. just north of Santa Paula near Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County. A second ignition point occurred a short time later, about four miles away near Upper Ojai. Multiple eyewitness reports note that an exploding transformer sparked the fire at the second location. And now there is evidence that a So Cal Edison crew was working on a construction site at the location of the first ignition and accidentally started that fire.
The fire also burned vegetation over hundreds of thousands of acres of scrubland and mountainous terrain. Shortly after the fire was controlled, a rainstorm hit Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, dropping between 2 to 4 inches of rain over two days, including an intense five-minute period where almost 0.5 inches of rain fell. With all vegetation gone, the heavy rainfall triggered massive mudslides in the Santa Ynez mountains. Traveling at speeds of 20 mph, these mudslides slammed into the community of Montecito below, enveloping hundreds of homes, killing 21 residents, and injuring 163 others. These mudslides were a direct result of the Thomas Fire.
The Tubbs Wildfire
On October 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire began in Sonoma County, about 12 miles northeast of Santa Rosa. Fueled by fierce winds and extremely dry conditions, the Tubbs Fire exploded in growth. By the time it was contained, it had caused 22 deaths and destroyed almost 6,000 homes and businesses in Sonoma and Napa counties.
At the time, The Tubbs Fire became the most destructive wildfire, in terms of structures destroyed, in California history. However, this record was surpassed only a year later by the massive Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California. CAL Fire determined the ignition source of this wildfire was the electrical system of a private residence.
The Camp Wildfire
On November 8, 2018, the disastrous Camp Fire began in Butte County during extremely low humidity and strong winds (the “Diablo winds”). The fire started about 6:15 a.m. and exploded across Butte County. By the time the Camp Fire was completely contained, it had destroyed 18,804 structures, killed 85 people, and destroyed 153,336 acres of land.
The Camp Fire is the most destructive wildfire in California history in terms of homes and businesses destroyed, and lives lost, shattering the record set by the Tubbs Fire only a year earlier. The cause of the Camp Fire was a PG&E power transmission line.
The Woolsey Wildfire
On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire began in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties and was one of several devastating wildfires ignited on the same date. The Woolsey Fire destroyed almost 97,000 acres of land, 1,643 homes, businesses, and other structures and killed three people before it was fully contained. The fire burned through part of the Santa Monica mountains to Malibu, destroying hundreds of homes.