Open arguments given for lawsuit against Pacific Power and its role in 2020 wildfires

Published: Apr. 25, 2023 at 7:38 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Opening arguments for a $1.6 billion class action lawsuit, alleging PacifiCorp equipment is responsible for starting four fires in Oregon, were presented to a jury in Multnomah County Courtroom Tuesday.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and PacifiCorp each spent about an hour and a half presenting their arguments to the jury. Nicholas Rosina, one of the lawyers representing the 17 victims, said the Beachie Creek Fire, Echo Mountain Fire, the 242 fire, and the South Obenchain Fire were all preventable. The lawsuit claims PacifiCorp was negligent the night of Sept. 7, 2020, and did not take action to prevent wildfires despite a forecast showing historic fire weather conditions for Oregon.

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“The fires were predictable and they were preventable and they decimated the lives of thousands of Oregonians,” Rosina said. “You may wonder throughout this case, why didn’t they protect Oregonians that night? Why not?”

Rosina claims extreme winds knocked down PacifiCorp powerlines, contributing to the explosive growth of the Beachie Creek fire and starting the three other fires in the state. He showed the jury forecasts for the days leading up to Labor Day from multiple weather services that warned of extreme fire weather. Despite the warnings, Rosina said PacifiCorp ignored the data and chose not to do a Public Safety Power Shutoff. He also went through conversations with top officials in the company about their concerns about winds knocking down powerlines and starting a fire.

Rosina highlighted that as wildfires were breaking out across Oregon, then Gov. Kate Brown’s office set up a call between the state’s utility companies and the state’s Chief of Fire Protection. On the call, he tried to persuade utility companies to turn the power off. Only Portland General Electric and Consumers Power were the only utilities to preemptively shut down the power before the wind started blowing from the east.

“The governor’s office calls and they did nothing,” Rosina said.

But Douglas Dixon, a lawyer representing PacifiCorp dismissed all of Rosina’s claims. He told the jury that the east wind event that weekend was unprecedented for the state and the company did everything it could to prepare for the weather. He also said climate change played a part in creating this unusual weather pattern for the Pacific Northwest.

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“You will learn that a combination of unusually strong offshore winds, warm weather, as well as dry conditions, contributed to a weather event that had never been seen in recorded Oregon history,” Dixon said.

Dixon also said PacifiCorp started investing millions of dollars in wildfire mitigation after the deadly 2017 wildfires in California. The company created a six-part plan that was finalized in late 2019 and presented to the Oregon Public Utilities Commission in July 2020. He said the state’s utility regulator rejected the plan but Dixon used it to show the jury PacifiCorp has been Oregon’s leader in preparing and preventing wildfires. He also said a report from regulators that found issues with vegetation management near its powerlines was taken “seriously” and PacifiCorp took action to address areas that needed to be maintained.

Dixon pointed out that the Beachie Creek Fire technically started three weeks earlier from a lightning strike and winds pushed it west. He said downed powerlines in the Santiam Canyon did not contribute to its destructive spread. When it comes to a Public Safety Power Shutoff, he said it’s not an easy decision to make.

“The possibility of ignition must be weighed against the dangers of de-energization when whole cities and towns can be blanked in the darkness just when they need the power the most,” Dixon said.

But it was a 911 call that was played in the courtroom that reminded everyone of the chaos and destruction of Labor Day night in 2020.

“There are flames everywhere,” the caller said. “The flames jumped all the way to our house, the poor firefighters they’re stuck over there.”