A county in Northern California wine country is exploring plans to sue a utility over a massive wildfire last fall that combined with rolling power shutoffs caused losses of $725 million.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hire two law firms to pursue legal action against pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility. The 121-square-mile (313-square-kilometer) blaze destroyed 374 structures in the county in October 2019.
The supervisors also released findings of a report assessing the economic impact of the fire and four PG&E power shutoffs. The report by Moody Analytics research company found the fire cost the county $620 million in losses and that the shutoffs caused an additional $105 million in losses.
Almost 195,000 residents, or 39% of the county’s population, were affected by the shutoffs between Oct 9 and Nov. 20, with the average resident disrupted for 2.5 days by any single outage, the report said.
The county’s action comes as PG&E is trying to dig out of a financial hole created by a series of catastrophic fires from 2015 to 2018 that have been blamed on the utility’s outdated electrical system and managerial negligence. Faced with more than $50 billion in claims from fire victims, insurers and government agencies, PG&E has been trying to rehabilitate itself in bankruptcy court for the past year. The company has settled most of those claims for a combined $25.5 billion.
But the ongoing bankruptcy case shields PG&E from other lawsuits until the company emerges with a reorganization plan approved by the court and California regulators. PG&E is aiming to emerge from bankruptcy protection by June 30, meaning Sonoma County may have to wait until the second half of the year before any lawsuit can proceed.
The cause of last fall’s fire is still under investigation but PG&E has told state regulators that it had a problem at a transmission tower near where the fire ignited. The utility had shut off power to thousands of people in Northern California that day in a bid to prevent high winds from toppling power lines and igniting wildfires. Power was shut off to distribution lines but not to high-voltage transmission lines.
The county’s losses from the fire included damages to lands, parks, roads, and costs for emergency services, evacuations, debris removal, labor and watershed restoration, according to a preliminary report from the board of supervisors.