A Santa Rosa couple on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against PG&E, claiming the utility company is responsible for the wildfire that destroyed their Coffey Park home and thousands of others in Sonoma County.
Wayne and Jennifer Harvell allege in the suit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court that PG&E failed to maintain and repair high- voltage power lines, which they say came into contact with drought-dry vegetation, starting the Tubbs fire and several others still burning in Wine Country.
The theory is one of many being examined by investigators searching for the cause of the fires, which started Oct. 8 amid extremely high winds across the region. It is far too early to know what sparked them, said Todd Derum, Cal Fire division chief for Sonoma County.
“We have a team investigating all the fires. They have not concluded their investigations,” Derum said. “We’re looking at all possibilities. There are a whole lot of things to look at.”
A PG&E spokesman, Donald Cutler, did not address specific allegations in the Harvell suit. He said the utility is focused on supporting firefighting efforts and restoring power and gas service as quickly as possible.
“We aren’t going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency,” Cutler said in an email.
The Tubbs fire spread under extreme wind from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, crossing Highway 101 and into the Harvells’ neighborhood, leveling their home of more than 30 years and destroying more than 2,900 others across the city.
Among other things, the Harvells allege PG&E was negligent for not de- energizing the lines under dangerous conditions. They seek unspecified monetary damages to pay for a new house and to compensate them for loss of “quiet enjoyment of property.”
A lawyer for the Harvells, Bill Robins of Santa Monica, said he believes the suit is the first against the utility stemming from the so-called Wine Country fires. He said hundreds of additional victims were expected to come forward and bring individual suits.
The Cal Fire investigation will address the possible role of its equipment in sparking the fire, PG&E told investors Friday in a report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Since the fire, PG&E has reported seven incidents of damage to its equipment, such as downed power lines and broken poles. It did not say whether they may have caused or contributed to the fire.
The utility reported it has $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses. It said its financial condition could be “materially affected” if the insurance is insufficient. Damages in Sonoma County alone have been pegged at $3 billion so far.
Last year, a Cal Fire investigation found PG&E was responsible for the 2015 Butte fire, which destroyed 549 homes and killed two people. The fire was sparked by a tree that fell into a power line near the Amador County community of Jackson. The California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for the fire, and the utility could be held liable for more than $1 billion in claims damages.
In 2015, regulators fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed eight people.