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.
The Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire erupted in Ventura county and 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 also destroyed over 1,063 homes and businesses. The Thomas Fire saw the mobilization of over 8,500 firefighters to fight it, 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, both of 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 the fire at the second location was sparked by an exploding transformer. 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. SoCal Edison has publicly admitted they are under investigation for its role in either causing or exacerbating the fire.
The fire also razed all 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 on January 8, 2018 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 intense 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 Fire
On October 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire began in Sonoma County about 12 miles northeast of the City 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 Fire
On November 8, 2018, the disastrous Camp Fire began in Butte County during a period of extremely low humidity and strong winds (called the “Diablo winds”). The fire began about 6:15 a.m. and exploded across Butte County. By the time the Camp Fire was completely contained on November 25, 2018, it had destroyed 18,804 structures, killed 85 civilians and destroyed 153,336 acres of land. The Camp Fire is the most destructive wildfire in California history in terms of homes and business destroyed and lives lost, shattering the record set by the Tubbs Fire only a year earlier. The cause of the Camp Fire is believed to be a problem with a PG&E power transmission line above Poe Dam near Pulga, California. The first report of a fire was right below this transmission line near the Dam. A poorly maintained steel hook holding up the high voltage power line is believed to be the cause.
The Woolsey Fire
On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire began in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties and was one of a number of devastating wildfires ignited on the same date. The Woolsey Fire destroyed almost 97,000 acres of land, 1,643 homes, business or other structures and killed three people before it was fully contained on November 21, 2018. The fire burned through part of the Santa Monica mountains making its way to Malibu where it destroyed hundreds of homes.
Causes of the Wildfires?
Many of these California wildfires were caused by improperly maintained electrical power lines. Over 95% of all wildfires in California are caused by humans, 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 are 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(s) of all major wildfires in California. While the investigation of causes of the Camp, Woolsey and Thomas Fires have not concluded, there is strong evidence indicating So Cal Edison and PG&E power lines played a significant if not causal role. In addition to various eyewitness reports that a transformer exploded igniting the Thomas Fire, So Cal Edison has publicly admitted its equipment may have played a role in causing the fire.
The Camp Fire is believed to have been caused by 100-year-old PG&E transmission line near Poe Dam that may have downed due to a poorly maintained steel hook. Eyewitness reports and 911 calls confirm this to be the location of the first ignition and PG&E recently admitted that it repeatedly delayed a safety overhaul of the century old transmission line. The Woolsey fire ignited right next to a So Cal Edison substation, which, according to an incident report filed by So Cal Edison, had experienced a disturbance or “relayed” only moments before the first fire report came in.
In the 2017 and 2018 fire outbreaks, CAL Fire found utilities responsible for starting a frighteningly large number 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 of these fires (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 and killed 9 people and was caused by trees or limbs falling onto PG&E power lines igniting in two locations. The Atlas Fire in Napa county burned 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures and caused 6 fatalities. CAL Fire determined there were 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 fires that merged together in Sonoma and Napa counties destroying a combined 56,556 acres, destroying 1,355 structures and causing the death of 3 civilians. The ignition source for each of these fires was either a tree falling and coming into contact with the PG&E power line or a downed line that PG&E attempted to re-energize while it was still down.
- In October 2018, CAL Fire announced that the cause of the Cascade Fire in Yuba County, which destroyed 264 structures, 9,989 acres and killed 4 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.” The power line was owned by PG&E.
CAL Fire referred the results of a number 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 its role in 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 destroyed 70,868 acres, 800 structures and caused 2 fatalities and the 2007 Witch-Guejito Fires caused by poorly maintained SDG&E power lines destroyed 247,000 acres, 1,800 structures including 1,265 homes and caused 2 fatalities.
Why File a Wildfire Lawsuit?
While many wildfire victims have insurance, it is usually inadequate to completely rebuild or replace the home and real property destroyed to pre-fire condition.
It is also typically inadequate to compensate victims for all of the personal property lost, not to mention the personal items which have little to no intrinsic value, but which are priceless to the owners.
Unfortunately, there will be many that had no insurance coverage wherein they are dependent upon FEMA aid which is usually inadequate to completely rebuild or replace a 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 home and other personal property, as well as trees, flowers, plants and other landscaping are frequently significantly underinsured. The cost of replacing these items can greatly exceed the cost of repairing the home.
There are several types of damages that are recoverable in a wildfire lawsuit. Wildfires commonly cause fatalities and physical injuries. Persons who suffered 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 human lives lost, homes and business burned but also the financial costs to fight these fires as well as repair the immense damage they cause, demands that we should take every feasible step to minimize these fires. This includes ensuring the various utility companies in this State properly service and maintain their power lines, power poles and transformers as well as designing these devices in the safest manner possible. This is particularly important during the times of 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 in general should not bear the costs which are now billions of dollars a year.
Wildfire lawsuits should also deter PG&E, So Cal Edison as well as other utility companies, from continuing to improperly maintain 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 proper maintenance.
Doyle APC lawyers have extensive wildfire litigation experience having represented many individuals whose homes and business were destroyed by the 2007 Witch Creek Fire which destroyed approximately 2,000 structures and almost 200,000 acres in northern San Diego county. The Witch Creek Fire was caused by improperly maintained electrical power lines.
The result was a massive litigation against San Diego Gas & Eclectic (SDG&E) in San Diego County Superior Court. Doyle APC attorneys successfully resolved many of these cases and assisted other attorneys in the litigation.
Wildfire litigation is extremely complex. A myriad of experts is frequently required to prove liability including meteorological experts, wildfire investigation experts as well as experts in power line maintenance. But more importantly, are the experts needed to prove a homeowner’s or business owner’s losses. This includes builders to ensure the repair or rebuild costs are adequate, arborists, erosion experts and landscape economists to ensure the cost to replace lost trees, plants and other landscaping are appropriately calculated.
If you, or a family member suffered losses from a California wildfire, you can contact us for a free legal consultation.