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?  

 

PG&E's Updated Tree Cutting Schedule

On November 25, PG&E announced further tree cutting work.  From November 28-December 12, PG&E will send ACRT, Inc.to pre-inspect and repatrol these areas.

Mokelumne Hill:

Jesus Maria Rd
Ponderosa Way
Worden Rd
Hwy 26

Mountain Ranch:
Whiskey Slide

East Murray Creek

Avenue A
Mountain Ranch Rd
Railroad Flat Rd

Sheep Ranch:

Railroad Flat Rd

PG&E's tree cutting schedule from November 28- December 12 will include these areas.

Mokelumne Hill:

Jesus Maria Rd
Baker Riley Rd
Old Gambetta Rd
Doster Rd
East Murray Creek
Old Greek Mine Rd
Buttondown Lane
Rainbow Rd
Upper Dorray Rd.
Lower Dorray Rd
Electra Rd
Flat Gulch Rd
Lower Gulch Rd
Diamond Lane
Old Gambetta Trl
Ponderosa Wy
Hwy 26
Sierra Oaks Lane

Mountain Ranch:

RailRoad Flat Rd
El Dorado Trl
Sierra Vista Way
West murray Creek
East Murray Cree
Whiskey Slide
Green Ranch Rd
Pine Ridge Rd
Struckman Rd
Emigrant Ct
Avenue A
3 Mile Ln
Rodesino Rd
Carabaldi St
Washington St
Old Emigrant Trail W
Hwy 26
Cedar Way
Spring Lake Rd
Cilenti Ranch Rd
Loma Serena Rd
Swiss Ranch Rd
Worden Rd
Francine Ct
44 Ranch Rd
Ponderosa Wy
Storey Rd
Wendell Rd
Hidden Valley Rd
Sheep Ranch Rd

Sheep Ranch:

Eagleview Dr
Cave City Rd
Sun Rd
Ham Luddy Rd
Skyview Ct
Lakeside Dr
Sugar Pine Rd
Eagleview Dr
Live Oak Lane
Oakridge Rd
Calaveras Rd 

Railroad Flat Rd
Hidden Valley Rd
Sheep Ranch Rd

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.  

Butte Fire: Was the Tree Dead or Alive?

By now it's no secret that the Butte Fire was likely sparked by a tree coming into contact with a PG&E overhead line. Jaxon Van Der Beken of the San Francisco Chronicle (who, by the way, won awards for his investigative reporting of the San Bruno PG&E fire), broke that news a week ago.

But PG&E makes a point of saying that the tree was a Butte Fire PG&E Tree Trimming live tree. PG&E really wants us to know that.

Does it matter? Not really. Certainly, PG&E's lawyers will point out that there are many regulations requiring PG&E to clear away from it's overhead electrical lines trees that are dead or rotten.  For example, the California Public Utility Commission rules say

When [PG&E] has actual knowledge . . . that dead, rotten or diseased trees or dead, rotten or diseased portions of otherwise healthy trees overhang or lean toward and may fall into a span of supply or communication lines, said trees or portions thereof should be removed.

But PG&E's responsibilities don't end there. The law requires PG&E to prune as necessary to keep it's electrical lines clear of all trees, dead or alive.

Dead trees, old decadent or rotten trees, trees weakened by decay or disease and trees or portions thereof that are leaning toward the line which may contact the line from the side or may fall on the line shall be felled, cut, or trimmed so as to remove such hazard.

If, as PG&E says, it inspected many times since 2014 the live tree that sparked the fire, it presumably should have noticed that the tree could contact the electrical line, just as might a dead or rotten tree, and "felled, cut, or trimmed" the tree so as to remove the hazard.  

PG&E's lawyers might argue the point, but on its own website, PG&E seems to acknowledge that its responsibility extends to all trees that might come in contact with one of its lines, whether that tree is dead or alive. 

Utilities are required to maintain clearance between vegetation and high voltage power lines at all times in all areas for public safety and electric system reliability.

It's just common sense.