Many lawsuits filed this year concern the potential involvement of power lines in starting fires during the 2020 wildfire season. New court records reveal state authorities informed utilities about fire hazards, pushing them to take down power lines before the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires.
During the 2020 wildfire season, when solid east winds spread fire over a million acres in Oregon, k!lling nine people and destroying thousands of houses, the issue of those power lines’ role in starting the fires has been critical to many lawsuits.
The Oregonian was the first to publish that a deposition submitted by plaintiffs’ lawyers in a class-action lawsuit against PacifiCorp, one of the West’s major utility corporations, revealed the existence of a meeting between state officials and utilities. Victims of the wildfires in 2020 accuse PacifiCorp of negligently operating and maintaining infrastructure and ignoring warnings about unusually high winds.
The latest filing centers on a deposition given by Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, which reveals that the state wanted several utilities to temporarily shut down power lines to reduce the risk of starting a fire during periods of high heat and low humidity, as well as during periods of high wind.
Grafe said that Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s chief of staff held a conference call with officials from various utilities, including PacifiCorp, on September 7, 2020, hours before the windstorms that transformed that year into one of Oregon’s most disastrous wildfire seasons.
According to the deposition, state officials were confident that they had made it plain to utilities in that conversation that power line shutdowns were the best way to prevent fires from starting. According to Grafe’s evidence, it is not common practice for the state to arrange a call alerting utilities to de-energize their power lines, and state authorities cannot do so.
“It wasn’t my authority to direct, but I prepared, in that conversation, everybody to understand the gravity of the situation and advised that more fires will occur from utilities. With the wind, there’s high potential for that to occur,” Grafe said in the deposition.
People in the Gates, Oregon area, reported seeing smoldering power lines in the hours before the fires started, according to 911 calls obtained by OPB. In March, lawyers for the victims of the fires released messages from PacifiCorp workers expressing concern that the utility’s transmission lines had contributed to the blazes.
There was no quick response to demands for comment from PacifiCorp’s lawyers or media representatives. Utility spokespeople have previously avoided discussing the subject, citing the company’s lawsuit stance.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking the court to punish PacifiCorp for concealing the meeting in which state officials recommended that the utility company turn off the electricity lines.
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“It defies imagination that this meeting occurred without any paper trail whatsoever,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated, “but Plaintiffs can find no document in PacifiCorp’s document productions relating to this meeting.”
The attorneys claim PacifiCorp has employed delay tactics and deliberate destruction of evidence to prevent the plaintiffs from amassing crucial evidence in the lawsuit.
Before this November’s deal for its claimed participation in the 2020 Archie Creek Fire in Southern Oregon, PacifiCorp had already paid millions of dollars in settlements connected to wildfires in Oregon. On April 24, the trial will commence in the class action lawsuit.