Pacific Gas and Electric is firing back in the legal war over the North Bay firestorm, filing legal claims blaming Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and at least three other North Bay agencies for “actions and inactions” in responding to the disaster.
Cal Fire officials are due to release findings later this month about the cause of the most devastating firestorm in state history, which claimed 44 lives. Meanwhile, PG&E is already being sued by the Wine Country counties which claim its equipment sparked the blazes.
In a claim filed last month against Sonoma County, PG&E cites “actions and inactions both before and during the Sonoma fires’’ by county officials as evidence of the “inadequacy” of their fire response effort. The claim points to possible breakdowns in everything from urban planning to water supply infrastructure to vegetation clearance enforcement – allegations one lawyer suing the utility considered insulting.
“It’s shocking to me that PG&E would try to blame the tax payers and the local governments for the fire that they caused’,” said John Fisk, the attorney representing the targeted counties.
“They are trying to put the blame on the governmental entities, the tax payers, and the brave men and women who are doing their very best and who did their very best to react to one of the most devastating wildfires that struck in the middle of the night.”
In its April claim against Sonoma County, PG&E says even though the Cal Fire probe is ongoing, it had to outline a case against relevant government agencies so as to “preserve our (its) rights” under state law.
PG&E recently got a boost in making the case against Sonoma based on a governor’s Office of Emergency Services report that found major gaps in the county’s alert system.
Overlapping systems led to “duplication, inconsistency and some confusion in messages transmitted to the public,” the report said.
“It did show flaws in the system, and we have to own that,” said James Gore, chairman of Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. He said the claim is not surprising, given the findings of the report the county had asked for.
“When we did that independent report, I did think that by doing it, it might open us to litigation,” Gore said. “But as a responsible public servant, I want to know what’s real and not hide from anything.”
Still, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner says the allegations in the claim do sting.
“I don’t have a good answer for why PG&E would do that. That’s a question for PG&E,” he said. “But clearly,” he said, “we don’t like it. But it’s going to go where it’s going to go and it’ll play out the way it plays out.”
Fiske, the attorney for the agencies in the claims, which include Mendocino County and the area’s Potter Valley Irrigation District, sees the actions as part of a larger campaign by the utility to limit its potential multibillion dollar fire liability, including a push for relief from the state legislature.
In a statement, the utility said the claims speak for themselves. In the claims, PG&E stresses the urgency of working together with local and state agencies to respond to the unprecedented challenge of global warming as the “new normal” in California.