Sonoma County officials filed a $100 million negligence lawsuit Tuesday against PG&E, seeking costs for fighting the wildfire and rebuilding lands and infrastructure destroyed in the Kincade fire last year.
“It’s the repetitive and repeated mistakes that get made over and over and over again,” said the county’s attorney, John Fiske, in describing what the suit calls PG&E’s “inexcusable” pattern of negligence leading up the 77,000-acre fire that prompted the largest evacuation in county history. Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Cloverdale have joined the legal action.
The Cal Fire investigative report, obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, seeks felony criminal charges against the utility for the alleged improper decommissioning of one segment of a 230,000-volt transmission line northeast of Geyserville.
That part of the transmission system was left energized when a nearby geothermal plant it powered was shut down in 2001, investigators found. In the process, Cal Fire found that crews disconnected it from a clamp on a nearby tower that kept it taut in high winds.
After two decades of swaying in the wind, the loose and live line suddenly failed on the night of Oct. 23. Prosecutors are still considering whether to bring a case, but Fiske says the evidence he has seen points to PG&E improperly abandoned aging equipment.
“When they did that, we believe they did so negligently, knowing that there was a high risk of fire in that area,” Fiske said, adding that he also represented the county in its suit over the Wine Country fires in 2017.
Fiske worries about the toll on some neighborhoods that now have been traumatized twice by PG&E sparked fires.
“That type of repetitive stress,” the attorney said, “can be very, very devastating for a community over a long period of time. so we just really hope that new PG&E leadership hears the call for change and makes real change for safety and stops putting profits over public safety.”
While PG&E did not respond directly to the suit, the utility said in a statement Tuesday it is still probing what sparked the fire at the base of a tower that had passed inspections done just months before the fire hit.