Butte Fire: State Senator Asks if PG&E Placed Profits Over Safety

Was PG&E’s cost-cutting a cause of the Butte Fire? Did PG&E use money that was supposed to be used for tree trimming and pay it out as profit to its executives? The attorneys for the Butte Fire victims have been looking into those questions from the outset of the Butte Fire investigation.   

Now State Senator Jerry Hill is asking the same questions.  He called PG&E into a meeting in SanButte Fire Lawsuits Francisco to find out.  Hill is someone who knows a bit about PG&E's history.

PG&E, in 1994, diverted $77 million from what was supposed to go to repair and maintenance of their electrical lines. They diverted it to corporate profits, to shareholder profits; just as they did in the gas system with hundreds of millions of dollars.”

This is the sort of thing that the California Public Utilities Commission is supposed to prevent.  But according to Hill, the CPUC has been unsuccessful in formulating vegetation management rules to prevent wildfires.  So Hill is getting involved in the issue himself.

Jerry Hill represents San Bruno, the community where a PG&E fire killed 8 and destroyed 47 homes in 2010.


PG&E Property Re-inspection and Further Tree Removal

PG&E has released a schedule for re-Inspection of Butte Fire properties and for further tree removal.  Unfortunately the timeline for the work is so broad as to be useless as a planning tool for residents.  

Butte fire

At seemingly arbitrary times and at the whim of the contractors over the next 10 days, PG&E may show up on victims' properties per the schedule below:



PG&E will be re-inspecting trees in the following areas:

Jesus Maria Rd Mokelumne Hill
Ponderosa Way Mokelumne Hill
Upper Dorray Rd Mountain Ranch
Worden Rd Mokelumne Hill
Hwy 26 Mokelumne Hill
Electra Rd Mokelumne Hill
Whiskey Slide Mountain Ranch
East Murray Creek Mountain Ranch
Doster Rd Mountain Ranch
Green Ranch Rd Mountain Ranch
Railroad Flat Rd Mountain Ranch/ Sheep Ranch
Fricot City Rd Sheep Ranch
Hidden Valley Rd Mountain Ranch/ Sheep Ranch
Old Gulch Rd Mountain Ranch


PG&E will be removing trees in the following areas: 


Jesus Maria Rd Mokelumne Hill
Baker Riley Rd Mokelumne Hill
Old Gambetta Rd Mokelumne Hill
Creations Way Mokelumne Hill
Potteroff Rd Mokelumne Hill
Doster Rd Mokelumne Hill
East Murray Creek Mokelumne Hill
Old Greek Mine Rd Mokelumne Hill
Shine Way Mokelumne Hill
Buttondown Lane Mokelumne Hill
Rainbow Rd Mokelumne Hill
West murray Creek Mountain Ranch
East Murray Creek Mountain Ranch
 Whiskey Slide Mountain Ranch
Green Ranch Rd Mountain Ranch
Old Emigrant Trail W Mountain Ranch
Hwy 26 Mountain Ranch
Fricot City Rd Sheep Ranch
Hidden Valley Rd Sheep Ranch/ Mountain Ranch
Rich Gulch Rd Mountain Ranch
Railroad Flat rd Mountain Ranch/ Sheep Ranch
Cedar Way Mountain Ranch
Eagleview Dr Moutain Ranch
Jesus Maria Rd Mokelumne Hill
Lower Dorray Rd Mokelumne Hill
Electra Rd Mokelumne Hill
Railroad Flat Mountain Ranch
Sheep Ranch Rd Sheep Ranch/ Mountain Ranch
Sun Rd Sheep Ranch
Ham Luddy Rd Sheep Ranch
Skyview Ct Sheep Ranch
Jesus Maria Rd Mokelumne Hill
Old Gambetta Trl Mokelumne Hill
Worden Rd Mountain Ranch
Ponderosa Wy Mokelumne Hill
Hwy 26 Mokelumne Hill
Francine Ct Mountain Ranch
44 Ranch Rd Mountain Ranch
Ponderosa Wy Mountain Ranch
Whiskey Slide Rd Mountain Ranch
 Ponderosa Way Mountain Ranch
Storey Rd Mountain Ranch
Green Hills Rd Mountain Ranch



PG&E's New Tree Debris Removal Program: A Waste of Time?

In response to landowner complaints, PG&E has agreed to remove all woody debris that is "reasonably accessible" and is:

·       greater than 4 inches in diameter and 6 feet or greater in length; and

·       within 100 feet of a structure or foundation or within 20 feet of main roads, driveways and private roads; or

·     on a steep banks with a potential target of waterways or roadways. 

PG&E will not compensate the landowners for the timber it removes and it may take up to three months to do the work.

And what is "reasonably accessible"? What does PG&E plan to do with all of the timber?  

While many landowners may agree this is a waste of time, or too little too late; some may want to take advantage of the program.  If so, the participation deadline: December 31, 2015.

Butte Fire Legal Team Files Death Suit

Owen Goldsmith was 82.  He had lived in Calaveras for more than 30 years. When the Butte fire threatened his home, he decided to stay and fight it.  Butte Fire Death Lawsuit 

On Tuesday, our Butte Fire legal team filed a wrongful death suit against PG&E in San Francisco on behalf of Goldsmith's family.  His daughter spoke to the press:

No one should have to go through what I imagine he went through. . . . It was so difficult to see that he died in his refuge."

Our lead lawyer on the case, Amanda Riddle, explained to NBCBay Area News, regardless of whether the 82 year-old was told to evacuate, it’s still on PG&E.

PG&E bears the ultimate responsibility. They put him in a situation where he felt that he had no escape."


Wrongful Death Complaint - Mathes v PGE - Filed

Butte Fire Lawyers to Host Town Hall Informational Meeting

 Our group of Butte Fire Lawyers will be hosting an informational meeting on Monday, October 26.  The meeting will be at 6:00 at the Senior Center on Mountain Ranch Road.  All all welcome.  Information about clean up, tree removal, evidence preservation, and PG&E claims will be provided.


Compensating Owners for the Value of Trees Lost in the Butte Fire

The Butte Fire burned properties at elevations from about 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The trees growing in those elevations of the Sierra Nevada foothills include Interior Live Oaks, Blue Oaks, Black Oaks, Douglas Fir, Sierra Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, and others.

Most people value the beauty trees bring to their area. An owner of a home in the foothills prefers a view of forested hillsides to a view of barren, burned hillsides. But putting a value on the loss of the trees can be difficult.

Three different methods are typically used for valuing a tree:

  1. the decrease the loss of the tree causes to the real estate's market value,
  2. the CTLA formula method, and
  3. the tree’s replacement cost.

If someone else caused the loss of the trees on your property, they will likely argue for the first method, particularly in rural areas. This approach minimizes the amount they would pay because most of the value of rural real estate is in the structures and land, not the trees.

But the law generally requires a person responsible for a tree's destruction to pay the cost of replacing the tree with one of same kind and size.  The replacement cost of a mature trees will likely be much higher than the decrease the loss of the tree causes to the home's market value.

For example, consider a home with three bedrooms located on 40 forested acres valued at $400,000. If a fire burns all of the trees but spares the home, the property's market value will certainly drop.  But a large portion of the value may remain in the house and the land. Imagine the property is now valued at only $300,000 because of the destroyed trees. The person who caused the fire may offer to pay the homeowner $100,000, the reduced value of the real estate.

The law, however, says that the one who caused the fire is responsible for restoring the homeowner’s property to the condition it was in before the fire. That means the homeowner is entitled to be paid the cost of replacing the trees destroyed. Replacement in this instance does not mean with new saplings but with trees of a similar size as what were destroyed.

What does it cost to replace mature trees? It depends on the size of the tree, the type of tree, and the difficulty in transplanting the tree. A 50 foot oak tree will cost more to replace than a 10 foot pine. Determining the type and size of the trees is essential in calculating the replacement costs.  But in almost all cases, the cost of replacing the trees will be more than the decrease in the home's market value as a result of the tree's destruction.

Will the Tree Survive the Fire Damage?

Some trees can survive a wildfire and even thrive. But many trees can be severely damaged or killed by wildfire. For property owners, it can be difficult to tell if trees have been killed by a fire or merely singed. The length of exposure and the intensity of the fire are big factors in the amount of damageCambium done to a tree during a fire. Additionally, the more stressed the tree was before the fire, whether from drought, disease, or insects, the more susceptible a tree is during a wildfire.

As a wildfire burns, a tree can be damaged in several ways.  The injury can vary from leaves or needles being burned off to root damage. For trees, any fire damage that impacts its ability to pull moisture from the soil is going to cause more severe damage or death.

If 50% or more of the bark has been completely burned off around the circumference of the trunk, then the tree has likely been killed. Some trees with extermely thick bark, like sequoias, may be able to survive even when more than 50% of the bark has been burned.

If a tree has been burned but a substantial portion of its bark remains, then you can check to determine whether the tree is still alive by cutting a small hole about the size of quarter through the bark. If there is a white or green moist cambial layer just beneath the bark, then the tree has a good chance of surviving. However, if the fire burned into part of the trunk, then the tree will likely be unstable and a hazard even if it does survive.

Evergreen trees that have less than 10% green needles or with less than 50% live buds remaining will likely not survive. Non-evergreens may survive even if most of the leaves have been burned off.

Even if a tree does survive the immediate fire, the damage it has suffered will make it more vulnerable to suffer attack from bark beetles and other insects that could ultimately kill it. 

Compensation for Trees Destroyed by Fire

The law recognizes that trees on private property have special value.  So when a tree is destroyed due to the wrongful act of another, the wrongdoer cannot get away with simply paying the property owner for"Quercus Agrifolia" by PeterOMalley - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quercus_Agrifolia.jpg#/media/File:Quercus_Agrifolia.jpg what the tree might have sold for as timber.  Rather, at least in some circumstances, the wrongdoer must pay for the costs of replacing the tree with another of the same size.  In fact, depending on the case, the wrongdoer may be required to pay the property owner three times the tree's value.   

The law has been interpreted differently by the courts.  Some courts will apply the law only when the trees have been wrongfully cut down.  Other courts apply the law to trees destroyed as a result of fires.  Still other courts require the wrongdoer to pay not just a multiple of the tree's replacement cost, but to pay for the replacement tree’s installation and aftercare as well.  

Butte Fire Victims Entitled to Compensation from PG&E for Homes' Diminution in Value

Insurance companies will pay to rebuild most of the homes that were burned down. But even if the newly rebuilt homes are identical to the old ones in all respects, the Butte Fire homeowners will still have a loss. The fact is that a home in the area simply won’t be worth what it was before the fire. The area has changed for the worse and won’t return to what is was for many years.

The law refers to the loss as a residual “diminution in value.” When, as here, the loss is the result of a fire caused by a utility company’s wrongdoing, the law requires the utility to compensate the homeowner for that diminution in value. That was the argument we made for the homeowners in the San Bruno Fire cases. The compensation each San Bruno victim was entitled to from PG&E included, among other things, the difference in their home's value before the fire and after it has been rebuilt.

The Butte Fire victims are entitled to nothing less.

Butte Fire: Diverting Money Raised For Tree-Trimming Wouldn't Be Anything New For PG&E

As lawyers for the victims of the San Bruno fire, we learned that the “gas side of the house” at PG&E saves money by collecting money from rate payers to perform maintenance and then deferring the work. The extra money on the books helps improve PG&E’s bottom line, and results in bigger bonuses for PG&E's management.

As it turns out, the electric side of the house has a history of doing the same thing.  Most notably, inButte Fire: PG&E Tree Trimming 1998 the California Public Utilities Commission found that PG&E took $77.6 million that was supposed to be spent trimming trees near power lines, and used it to boost profits, just as PG&E would later do in San Bruno.

The CPUC report followed a Nevada County jury’s verdict that found PG&E criminally liable for the Trauner fire near Grass Valley. That fire was started when a tree limb that PG&E was supposed to keep trimmed brushed up against a 21.000-volt power line. 

The Nevada County Deputy District Attorney on this case was hopeful that the verdict would bring about change.

Hopefully, this sends a message to upper-level PG&E management that they must do whatever is necessary to comply with the law and protect public safety.

Given what happened in San Bruno, and what just happened in Butte, the Nevada County verdict apparently wasn’t enough of a message.