First Tubbs fire victims to sue PG&E will press ahead in legal fight after Cal Fire report
Jennifer Harvell wants her house back. And she still holds PG&E responsible for her loss.
Harvell and her husband, Wayne, were the first people among thousands of fire survivors to sue PG&E in 2017 alleging the company was responsible for causing the Tubbs fire.
Now they say that nothing has changed for them following the release Thursday of Cal Fire’s long-awaited report on the cause of the fire. State investigators determined a private electrical system next to a Calistoga-area home, and not PG&E equipment, sparked the blaze.
The Harvells’ home on Mocha Lane in Santa Rosa’s ?Coffey Park neighborhood went up in flames, along with more than 3,000 others in Santa Rosa. Altogether, 4,651 homes and ?22 lives were lost in the inferno, the worst on record in California at the time.
“If you’re asking if we’re going to dismiss our lawsuit, we don’t have any plans to do that. You know, we lost everything we ever owned in our life. It’s just devastating to us,” Jennifer Harvell said.
The Harvells filed suit against PG&E in San Francisco Superior Court as the fire still raged on Oct. 17, 2017, a little more than a week after they lost their home in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 9. The suit alleged that PG&E didn’t properly maintain electrical equipment and failed to clear out vegetation in the area of the fire’s origin in Napa County.
When the fire jumped Highway 101 and burned through Coffey Park - 12 miles west of where it started - the Harvells managed to save their pets and one of their three cars. Everything else was reduced to ashes. Jennifer searched the wreckage in vain for her wedding ring. The only salvageable item of note the couple did find: their son Brady Harvell’s dog tags from his tour of service in Iraq.
“We woke up at 2:15 in the morning and our house was gone by 3:00,” Jennifer Harvell said. “After a trip up to Walmart, we had a few bags in the car and we said ‘Wow, everything we own is in the backseat of our car.”
The Harvells are renting a home in Sebastopol as they wait for an insurance payment that will allow them to rebuild their home. Their Coffey Park property is still a bare lot, one of the few on their street where rebuilding has not begun.
“I haven’t decorated for Christmas, for two Christmases, because I don’t feel like I want to decorate a house that’s not mine. It’s hard to explain,” Jennifer said. “I would love to live in my house again someday and look out my window and see my same view.”
Along with their children, they were the only ones to live in the Mocha Lane home after it was built to their specifications on land they purchased three decades ago.
“We bought it when it was a dirt lot,” Jennifer said. “And now it’s a dirt lot again, 30 years later.”
The Harvells were counting on some compensation from PG&E to help them recoup their losses and move on. Harvell said she spoke with the Santa Rosa-based member of her legal team, Donald Edgar, on Thursday following the release of Cal Fire’s report. She decided afterward to press ahead with the lawsuit.
According to Edgar, the report is not admissible as evidence in a trial, and therefore will not affect the outcome of the case. He also called the report’s findings into question, pointing out that none of the exhibits referenced in the 80-page report are attached to the publicly released version, meaning the public cannot evaluate the strength of the evidence Cal Fire used to make its determination.
“The lack of substance there is striking,” Edgar said. “The veil has been dropped and the Cal Fire report can be seen for what it is.”
The release of the report, which caused a 75 percent jump in PG&E’s stock price Thursday, may have actually helped plaintiffs like the Harvells who are suing PG&E over the Tubbs fire, Edgar said. The company has not publicly backed away from its plans to declare bankruptcy, a move that could happen as soon as this week. If it drops those plans, hundreds of liability lawsuits against the company stemming from fires in 2017 and 2018 would be free to advance.
The Cal Fire report is “going to reduce their interest rates, which is all good for the victims,” Edgar said. “If they get some semblance or some appearance of financial stability and don’t have to file bankruptcy, that’s good for us.”
Both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County have indicated they will press ahead in their lawsuits against PG&E. “We’re trying to get all the resources we can that rightfully should be coming back to the city of Santa Rosa so that we can continue our rebuild efforts,” Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said in a press conference on Friday.
Cal Fire investigators found no violations of state safety laws and did not recommend criminal charges in the Tubbs case. It rested blame with equipment on a Bennett Lane property owned by a 91-year-old woman now living in Riverside, mirroring claims PG&E had previously made in court and regulatory filings.
In its statement Thursday, PG&E said Cal Fire’s finding did not change the company’s precarious situation.
“PG&E still faces extensive litigation, significant potential liabilities and a deteriorating financial situation, which was further impaired by the recent credit agency downgrades to below investment grade,” the company stated. “Resolving the legal liabilities and financial challenges stemming from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires will be enormously complex and will require us to address multiple stakeholder interests, including thousands of wildfire victims and others who have already made claims and likely thousands of others we expect to make claims.”
Cal Fire officials were adamant in asserting the timing of the report’s release had no connection with any of the involved parties, including financially teetering PG&E.
Cal Fire Deputy Director Mark Mohler said the agency spent thousands of hours investigating the cause of the fire and the report conclusively showed PG&E was not responsible for starting the fire, he said. He shared Friday that he had not yet read the report.
“I would say … there is no PG&E involvement in it,” he said. “The investigator was confident it was completely on the private side of the line.”
The Harvells aren’t convinced.
“I think there’s just a lot of questions still,” Jennifer Harvell said. “We still believe that PG&E is responsible for this, and that’s why we’re going to continue on.”
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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