Dixie fire victims sue PG&E as wildfire liabilities mount for California’s largest utility

PG&E Corp. is being sued by more than 200 victims of the Dixie fire, adding to the potential wildfire liabilities confronting a utility that barely a year ago emerged from a bankruptcy case sparked by earlier fire damages.

The Singleton Schreiber McKenzie Scott law firm of San Diego, which has tangled with PG&E for years over wildfire liability claims, said Wednesday it has filed a pair of lawsuits against California’s largest utility over damages caused by the Dixie fire.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, is investigating whether the Dixie fire — already the second-largest fire in California history, as measured by acres — was caused by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment.

The utility has disclosed that an employee spotted a “healthy green tree” leaning against a conductor on a utility pole July 13, the day the fire started in the Feather River Canyon. The same employee saw fire burning at the base of the tree.

The fire has burned 960,583 acres, including much of the tiny Plumas County community of Greenville and was 75% contained Wednesday. More than 1,300 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

Asked about the lawsuit, the utility said Cal Fire hasn’t yet determined the cause, “and we have not been able to review the evidence Cal Fire collected. We remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area.”

The lawsuits, filed in Superior Court in Shasta County and PG&E’s hometown of San Francisco, accuse the utility of failing to foresee the threats posed by dry vegetation around its equipment. “PG&E negligently, recklessly and wantonly failed to maintain and operate the electrical equipment in its utility infrastructure,” both suits say.

Mega fires drove PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019. The company exited Chapter 11 a year later after agreeing to pay $13.5 billion to cover uninsured damages from the 2017 wine-country fires and the 2018 Camp fire in Paradise, the deadliest wildfire in California history. Under an agreement with Gov. Gavin Newsom, the company also revamped its board of directors and operational structure in an effort to improve wildfire safety.

And just eight days after the Dixie fire started, Chief Executive Patricia Poppe announced a commitment to plant 10,000 miles of power lines underground.

But the liabilities keep piling up. PG&E has told investors it could face damages totaling more than $600 million from the October 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County and last year’s deadly Zogg fire in Shasta County. The company has already paid more than $43 million to local government agencies for costs associated with those two fires.