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.

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.