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Sonoma County building case against PG&E for Kincade Fire; countywide losses hit $725M

Sonoma County is hiring a law firm to advance its legal case against PG&E for the Kincade fire, the county’s largest-?ever wildfire, which dealt an estimated $620 million economic blow to the region, according to a new analysis.

The county plans to seek compensation for taxpayer losses from PG&E in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where the utility is in negotiations to pay off liabilities from its role in sparking earlier wildfires, including the 2018 Camp fire and the 2017 firestorm that took a massive toll on Sonoma County.

The move comes as Cal Fire continues its work investigating the Kincade fire’s cause. PG&E reported to state regulators that it found a broken jumper cable from a transmission tower in the Mayacamas Mountains of northeastern Sonoma County where the Kincade fire started. The fire eventually burned across more than 120 square miles, forcing the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people as a massive firefighting force battled the blaze on the outskirts of Windsor, Healdsburg and northeast Santa Rosa.

“PG&E, not local taxpayers should pay for costs and damages related to the (Kincade) fire, including harm to infrastructure, open space and disaster response costs,” County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said in an email.

Supervisors Tuesday voted to approve the next step toward seeking payment from PG&E and also discussed the significant economic losses caused by the Kincade fire - estimated by Moody’s Analytics at $620 million.

That figure includes an estimated $235 million in lost economic output and $385 million in property losses, said Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which requested the analysis.

The firm also estimated an additional $105 million economic hit from a series of four power shut-offs initiated by PG&E in October and November that left large swaths of Sonoma County in the dark. The power shut-offs impacted nearly 195,000 residents, accounting for about 40% of the county’s population, according to the report.

On average, the economic impacted amounted to a $16,500 loss per business and $765 per resident, Person-Whitley said.

Supervisor James Gore said he wants the county to use the startling tally to push state regulators to limit the ability of PG&E and other utilities to cut power and bolster safety rules.

“This tells a very powerful story,” Gore said.

The board agreed to bring on the same lawyers that helped it after the 2017 fires. In that case, the county brokered a settlement with PG&E to receive part of the $415 million the utility has promised to pay local governments for the damages and other costs incurred during those fires. The county’s take of that sum hasn’t been finalized, Goldstein said.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said county staff are still estimating what the Kincade fire cost the county - noting the county-led debris removal program is ongoing. The fire destroyed 374 residential and commercial structures, including 174 homes.

“We would like reimbursement for the expenses we’ve incurred for the Kincade fire just as we did for the other fires,” Gorin said. In addition to damaged public works, the county is tallying its costs for repairs to burned open space and disaster response.

The Kincade fire broke out Oct. 23 amid a large power shut-off that left significant areas of Sonoma County in the dark - a blackout initiated by PG&E as a safety measure meant to avoid starting fires during risky fire weather.

But the utility kept high-voltage transmission lines energized, including one running through The Geysers geothermal area where the Kincade fire started. Cal Fire investigators narrowed in on a broken jumper cable from a transmission tower near the fire’s origin, and PG&E told state utility regulators its systems detected an equipment failure about the time the fire started.

PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras emphasized that Cal Fire investigators have not announced any conclusions about how the Kincade fire started and said the utility is focused on public and employee safety.

“There has been no determination by Cal Fire on the cause of the Kincade fire and we remain focused on doing everything we can to help impacted customers in Sonoma County recover and rebuild while further reducing wildfire risk,” Contreras said.

The county is working with Texas law firm Baron & Budd and San Diego-based Dixon Diab & Chambers on its legal claims related to wildfires. The firms will represent the county, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District as well as the Sonoma County Water Agency.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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