The trial to assess Pacific Power’s liability for alleged wrongdoing leading up to the Labor Day wildfires in 2020 began with testimony from key state government officials on Wednesday, April 26.
The historic trial, in which 17 plaintiffs demand $1.6 billion, is set to go until June. Some plaintiffs blame Pacific Power for losing their houses because of fires started by the company’s power wires and other electrical equipment.
On Tuesday(April 25), lawyers for both parties presented their opening statements in the lawsuit, arguing whether or not Pacific Electricity was obligated to turn off its electricity lines. Officials testified on Wednesday that they sought to persuade utility providers to de-energize electrical lines before several of the largest wildfires began.
When asked about his interaction with electricity companies on Labor Day 2020, including Pacific Electricity, Nik Blosser, who was then the chief of staff for Oregon Governor Kate Brown, stated he would never forget it.
There’s “that feeling of regret” because “we had that call, and we had a chance, and then a million acres burned,” as Blosser put it in court. We may have been able to stop this tragedy from happening, but we didn’t.
According to evidence presented on Wednesday that centered on a dialogue between power company executives Blosser and Doug Grafe, the former head of fire prevention for the Oregon Department of Forestry, Santiam Canyon is in a high-risk zone for wildfires.
In court, Grafe stated, “Yes, power shutoffs would have prevented future fires across the state.” Blosser expressed disappointment that Pacific Electricity and other utilities needed to be better prepared to turn off the electricity in response to the heightened warnings.
Pacific Power’s lawyers maintained that, back in the day, power outages were unheard of in Oregon. They questioned Blosser and Grafe on whether or not they understood the gravity of the situation, saying that towns in wildfire-risk areas may lose power if the grid went down.
Given the importance of consistent power and services, Grafe speculates this is a difficult choice. Since Blosser didn’t think he could do so, he never directly requested that the power companies de-energize their lines.
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“We could not explicitly order them to shut the power off, so we had to figure out how to do everything but that to create the same outcome,” he said. Although state and federal investigations are underway, a Multnomah County jury will determine whether or not Pacific Power lines were to blame for four fires that broke out on Labor Day.
The trial has been split into two parts: the first half will determine liability for the four wildfires at issue in the lawsuit (which span from the Santiam Canyon to the Lincoln City area and down into southern Oregon), and the second will determine damages or compensation if Pacific Power is found to be at fault.
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