Cal Fire Determines PG&E Power Line Cause of Butte Fire

Today Cal Fire issued a news release.  Cal Fire investigators determine the cause of the destructive Butte Fire was the PG&E power line.  Cal Fire will file a lawsuit against PG&E to recover over $90 million for firefighting costs.

Property owners and renters in the Butte Fire area are working with attorneys to calculate the damages to their property.  Potential damages include: loss of use, loss of enjoyment, loss of value, and destruction of homes, trees and fences.  More victims of the Butte Fire join the lawsuits every day.

Coincidence? Or Something More?

In February 2015, tree cutters working for PG&E were supposed to remove trees from a grove that threatened power lines.  But they left standing a tree in the middle of that grove – a 44-foot tall grey pine that had a diameter of about 5 inches at the base that was leaning toward the lines. Over the following months, the tree leaned further and further until, on September 9, 2015,  it made contact with one of the lines and sparked the disastrous Butte Fire.  

The tree itself was not burned in the fire. CalFire crews cut it down, sectioned it into 6 pieces, and have stored it, along with the wire it contacted, in an evidence locker at CalFire’s headquarters.  

On a misty morning on February 17, 2016, experts, PG&E's lawyers and insurers, and the Butte Trial Lawyers were allowed to view,scorched tip photograph, and weigh the tree. Nobody was really sure why the tree was being weighed five months after the fire, but that’s what PG&E’s insurance companies wanted to do.  The photo to the right shows the scorched tip of the tree where it came in contact with the wire.

While the wire was being inspected and photographed under a microscope, a huge gust of wind scattered a stack of coolers

Tree falls onto wires during inspectionacross the parking lot. Then there was a loud “boom" and the lights went out. One of the experts, an electrical engineer, immediately identified the noise as a power line circuit breaker blowing.

Several lawyers and experts walked down the driveway to the CalFire headquarters to the road. About 150 feet up the road, this is what they saw – a tree that had blown down onto a power line and shorted it out. PG&E’s chief lawyer was on the phone immediately to PG&E to send a crew. It only took them 45 minutes to show up. Meanwhile, the  tree started smoking! 

All this time PG&E has been claiming it has taken adequate steps to trim trees so as to protect its power lines.  And then this, with PG&E's lawyers and insurers all as witnesses.  So you decide: Coincidence or something more?

-Dario DeGhetaldi

 

Environmental Damages Quantified

Consultants and paid experts are now working to evaluate the environmental damages that the Butte fire caused. Some of the aspects of the loss they are looking into:

Cost of Clean Up: Wholly apart for reasons of aesthetics, all properties must be cleaned up. An owner may not be too concerned about felled timber left on a remote corner of his or her property, but the timber is hazardous as fuel for further wildfires and bug infestation.

Cost of a Comprehensive, Long Term Weed Abatement Program: Without a weed abatement program, invasive species will take hold and destroy the area’s biodiversity.

Cost of Timber Destroyed: Timber that has been destroyed must be inventoried, either by boots-on-the-ground survey or by the study of high-resolution satellite imagery. The timber’s pre-fire market value must then be determined.

Cost of Reforestation: Plans for reforesting the properties must include provisions for caring for the newly planted vegetation until the vegetation becomes self-sustaining. Plans must take into account whether the property was commercial or residential.

Cost of replacing Heritage or Landscaping Trees: Trees that provided shade, privacy, or had special aesthetic value must be identified and valued on an individual basis.

Erosion Control Plans: Engineers need to locate the areas most subject to the risk of erosion, develop an individualized plan for mitigation of each such risk, and then determine the associated costs. They will also look at structures and roads.

The work is ongoing. The experts won’t be able to draw conclusions concerning whether certain fire-damaged trees will survive and whether certain properties are at risk of damage from erosion until late spring, at the earliest.

Butte Fire Cases to be Coordinated

What documents must PG&E turn over to the lawyers for the fire victims? Which PG&E employees will be required to appear and answer questions under oath, and when? What scientific tests may plaintiffs’ experts perform on the evidence found at the fire’s origin?

These are the types of questions that a judge must decide as the lawyers get their cases ready for trial. Sometimes, these decisions end up being the most important ones a judge makes. But here, some of the lawsuits were filed in the Calaveras County court, and some were filed by the Butte Fire Lawyers in San Francisco County court. The judges in the two different counties could disagree on how these important questions should be decided. So the Calaveras judge ruled that all the decisions leading up to the trials should be made by a single judge, regardless of where the cases were filed. He decided Sacramento is a convenient place for all the attorneys and witnesses, and that the Sacramento court system was best able to handle all the paperwork involved in the pre-trial process without overwhelming the court staff.

It’s now up to the chief judge in Sacramento to assign one of that court’s judges to be the “Coordination Judge.” The Coordination Judge will make all the pre-trial decisions that will guide the preparation of cases. We expect the Coordination Judge to be named within the next few weeks. Once that happens, the Coordination judge will meet with all the attorneys for all the cases – both those filed in Calaveras and in San Francisco – to agree on a schedule for moving the cases forward. Where the cases will be tried remains to be seen.

 

Butte Fire Hazmat Update

Are you suspicious about the workers asking to enter your property? Do you have concerns that someone may be posing as an agent of CalRecyle?

As the hazardous materials debris removal process moves along, some property owners question the legitimacy of contractors who are contacting them about further work on their property. Applying the wise adage “Better safe than sorry”, it’s smart to watch out for scam operations. If you have concerns about whether a contractor is an agent of CalRecycle, simply call the Butte Fire Operations Center 209-584-4347 and ask them to confirm the identity of the contact.

As of February 19, 2016, the CalRecycle crews have cleared 611 of the 819 identified properties. The 31 task forces are spread throughout the fire area. Of the cleared properties, the majority are in the final three stages of removal: soil assessment sampling, erosion control and County environmental health approval.
 

PG&E Debris Removal Program: Cleaning up Victims' Properties or PG&E's Image?

Butte Fire victims are just now getting a letter from PG&E offering to clean up some of the woody debris left from the fire.  Sounds good, but is it really?  Here are some of the concerns: 

  • No details.  We’ve been asking PG&E since October to let us see the forms they want the residents to sign before getting the work done.  It still hasn’t shown us.  All we've seen is a “Notice of Work” form.  What’s the big secret?  Why can’t the victims’ attorneys see the documents PG&E wants the victims to sign?
  • Impossibly short opt-in deadline.  Property owners must opt-in by December 31.  That's too short a time frame for owners to obtain advice on what to do.  After all this time, if the offer is legit, what's the rush?
  • Ulterior Motive?  PG&E's form asks the owner to initial and agree to PG&E’s inventory of the number of the trees they remove, as well as the trees' size.  Why? Is PG&E trying to get victims to agree with their count of the dead trees, to use later against the property owners in lawsuits?
  • Double talk.  PG&E’s brochure states that a tree qualifies for removal if, for example, the tree "is reasonably accessible by equipment/machinery".  Does that mean  it will remove all tree debris of any size that is "reasonably accessible by equipment/machinery"? "Reasonable" to whom? And accessible to what type of equipment or machinery?
  • PG&E keeps the value:  PG&E wants to take the trees, but not pay for them.  Rather, PG&E says that the wood it will haul away is to be considered "donated."  PG&E is a billion dollar corporation.  Why does it need the fire victims to donate to it?

While PG&E's public relations team may be trying to boost its good will among the residents of Calveras and Butte County, it may also be trying to limit what it will have to pay property owners going forward.

 

PG&E Debris Removal letter

Where's the Haz Mat Clean Up Crew in Butte Fire Area?

 

According to CalRecycle waste management engineer Wes Minderman, although at least 32 crews are working in the clean up area, they have only completed about 28% of the properties(779 registered and 216 completed.) Some property owners are concerned about the status of hazardous material inspections and removal.  According to the Butte Fire Clean Up website debris removal was suspended on November 15th.  but Mr. Minderman explains that the suspension was temporary and resumed as soon as weather permitted. 

Currently the crews are focusing on the center of the fire area where management fears that they will lose access: Jesus Maria, Baker Riley, and Hawver areas.  Mr. Minderman and his staff are willing to answer any questions at 916-341-6320.  If you would like current information about your property and the hazmat debris removal, contact Natalie Lee the Butte Fire Debris Removal Planning Chief at 916-835-7478. 

PG&E Tree Inspection and Removal Continues

An Updated PG&E  Tree Removal  Plan for the Week of 12/14/15- 12/20/15.

ACRT, Inc. re-inspection continues in the following areas:

 


  • Jesus Maria Rd
  • Ponderosa Way
  • Worden Rd
  • Hwy 26
  • Whiskey Slide 
  • East Murray Creek
  • Railroad Flat Rd
  • Avenue A
  • Mountain Ranch Rd

Four new areas appear on the re-inspection list this week: 

  • Green Ranch Rd
  • Michel Rd
  • Old Gulch Rd
  • Lucky Jim Rd

 

Tree removal will take place in these areas:


Mokelumne Hill

  • Baker Riley Rd
  • Diamond Lane
  • Doster Rd
  • East Murray Creek
  • Electra Rd
  • Flat Gulch Rd
  • Hwy 26
  • Indian Gulch Rd
  • Jesus Maria Rd
  • Kerstan Lane
  • Lower Dorray Rd
  • Lower Gulch Rd
  • Music Gulley Rd
  • Old Gambetta Rd
  • Old Gambetta Trl
  • Old Greek Mine Rd
  • Ponderosa Wy
  • Sierra Oaks Lane

Mountain Ranch:

  • Avenue A
  • 3 Mile Ln
  • 44 Ranch Rd
  • Garabaldi St
  • Cilenti Ranch Rd
  • Doster Rd
  • East Murray CreeK
  • El Dorado Trl
  • Emigrant Ct
  • Francine Ct
  • Green Ranch Rd
  • Hwy 26
  • Loma Serena Rd
  • Murray Dale Ln
  • Nikki Trail
  • Old Emigrant Trail W
  • Pine Ridge Rd
  • Ponderosa Wy
  • Railroad Flat
  • RailRoad Flat Rd
  • Rodesino Rd
  • Salamander Gulch
  • Sierra Vista Way
  • Spring Lake Rd
  • Storey Rd
  • Struckman Rd
  • Swiss Ranch rd
  • Washington St
  • Wendell Rd
  • West Murray Creek
  • Whiskey Slide
  • Whiskey Slide Rd
  • Worden Rd
  • Mountain Ranch Rd

Sheep Ranch:

 

  • Eagleview Dr
  • Calaveras Rd
  • Eagleview Dr
  • Ham Luddy Rd
  • Lakeside Dr
  • Live Oak Lane
  • Oakridge Rd
  • Skyview Ct
  • Sugar pine Rd
  • Sun Rd
  • Sheep Ranch/Mountain Ranch
  • Hidden Valley Rd
  • Sheep Ranch Rd
  • Railroad Flat Rd


If your property is located in any of these areas and has power lines across it, be sure photographs have been taken of the area before trees are felled and removed.

 

 

 

 

PG&E Still Talking About "Free" Removal

Over 20 days ago, PG&E announced an "Updated Expanded Debris Removal Program".  Today, it continues to tout the program.  It has prepared a mailing to go out today for all of its affected customers.  PG&E set a December 31st deadline to opt in.  

To participate,  PG&E requires the property owner to submit a debris removal authorization form. But that form doesn't seem to exist.  It has not been shown to the attorneys and it is not part of the PG&E mailing. 

If you haven't heard, here are the details of the program:

Does your tree qualify for free removal?

According to PG&E it must meet one or more of the criteria below:
 
  • Wood greater than 4 inch in diameter and 6 feet in length
  • Within 100 feet of a structure or foundation
  • Within 20 feet of main roads, driveways and private roads
  • Where reasonably accessible by equipment/machinery
  • If logs are unstable along steep banks and may block a watercourse or roadway
 
Your options for removal, if your tree(s) qualify:
 
  • Move, cut up or pile wood and leave on your property
  • Chip and broadcast wood on site where accessible
  • Haul donated wood away offsite
If you qualify and you are represented by an attorney, you should contact your attorney about the program.
 
Time will tell whether this is anything more than another PG&E public relations campaign.
 

Butte Fire Litigation in the Hands of Calaveras Judge

Property owners asked the Judicial Council to coordinate the pre-trial handling of their cases.  In response, the Chief Justice recently asked Calaveras County Presiding Judge to handle the matter. The Calaveras County presiding judge, the Honorable Grant Barrett, will consider the request and make a recommendation to the Chief Justice on the most appropriate site for the Butte Fire coordinated proceeding. Will he keep it in Calaveras or send it to another County?