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Kincade fire victims sue PG&E over damage from 2019 blaze

More than 50 businesses and individuals have filed a lawsuit against PG&E seeking compensation for damages from last year’s Kincade fire, the largest wildland blaze in Sonoma County history.

Mayacama Golf Club, three wineries and four hotels are among the 21 businesses seeking unspecified damages from the utility, along with 30 individuals or trusts.

The cause of the 78,000-acre wildfire remains under investigation by Cal Fire and PG&E has not come forward to say what role, if any, its equipment may have had in sparking the blaze.

It erupted during a windstorm on Oct. 23 in a remote part of the Mayacamas Mountains, where high-voltage power lines carry electricity generated by The Geysers geothermal field.

On the first night, the fire burned down the flanks of the hills overlooking Alexander Valley, claiming homes on multiple large estates. It would later reach the valley floor and race to the edge of Healdsburg, Geyserville and Windsor, destroying 374 structures and forcing nearly 200,000 people countywide to evacuate.

Though PG&E has not been faulted by state investigators, the lawsuit seeks to hold the utility giant liable, calling its safety record an “abomination.” PG&E has “developed a regular pattern of placing its own profits before the safety of the California residents it serves and shows no intention of changing this behavior,” the 38-page complaint states.

Jack Weaver, an attorney in one of the three law firms that filed the complaint, said he believes it is the first civil claim against PG&E relating to the Kincade fire, which destroyed 174 homes and burned to within 100 yards of Weaver’s home in Windsor.

Damages sustained by the 51 fire victims include loss of property and business revenue, personal injury, smoke and landscape damage and emotional distress, Weaver said.

The lawsuit was filed electronically last week, and an amended filing will add 20 more claimants, he said Tuesday.

“Having lived through it, I take it personally,” Weaver said.

PG&E, California's largest utility, emerged from bankruptcy two weeks ago and put $5.4 billion in cash and 22.19% of its stock into a trust for victims of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires caused by the utility's equipment.

The company sought bankruptcy protection in January 2019 after accumulating an estimated $30 billion in liability for deadly and destructive fires started by its equipment, which state officials and critics say has been poorly maintained over decades.

Weaver said he believes PG&E had about $450 million worth of insurance coverage available for Kincade fire claims and should also be able to tap into a $20 billion wildfire fund created last year by state lawmakers.

“I am confident that there is going to be money to be paid for Kincade,” he said.

Responding to the lawsuit, Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email, “Cal Fire has not made a determination on the cause of the Kincade fire, and we have not been able to review the evidence Cal Fire collected.”

“At PG&E, we remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area while also limiting the scope and duration of public safety power shutoffs that may occur this wildfire season,” she said.

"We are grateful to the first responders who fought the 2019 Kincade fire and helped make sure that no lives were lost,“ Contreras said.

The 675-acre Mayacama Golf Club sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage from the Kincade fire that “came right up to our back door,” said Jonathan Wilhelm, the club’s managing partner.

The club was evacuated and shut down for three weeks and firefighting bulldozers rutted the property, he said.

The Tubbs fire of 2017 was far worse, scorching most of the property and causing an insured loss in excess of $10 million, Wilhelm said.

Another claimant, John Viszlay, owner of Viszlay Vineyards on Limerick Lane south of Healdsburg, said the power outage for more than a week caused nearly 1,000 cases of red wine to spoil while waiting to be bottled, a loss he called “devastating.”

His home and winery sustained smoke damage, and Viszlay said the harm was compounded by anxiety over being cut off from his property by National Guard troops in the street. He said he was leaving it to his lawyers to calculate the financial loss.

The two other wineries named in the suit are Christopher Creek Winery, also on Limerick Lane, and Stuhlmuller Vineyards in the Alexander Valley.

Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg also is seeking to recover fire costs.

Cal Fire, which took 16 months to file a report on the cause of the Tubbs fire, has yet to issue a finding on the Kincade fire, but Weaver said there is ample evidence that PG&E’s equipment was to blame.

About seven minutes before the fire erupted in The Geysers, PG&E detected a mechanical failure on a 230,000-volt transmission line that had not been included in its preemptive power shutdown, the lawsuit said.

Early the next day, a PG&E worker saw the area around the base of the 40-year-old tower had been taped off by Cal Fire, the complaint said.

Asserting that PG&E has a long history of tragic safety lapses, the lawsuit cited 19 explosions and fires caused by the utility’s equipment between 1981 and 2018 — the year of the deadly Camp fire in Butte County. One hundred and forty-one people died in those disasters and PG&E and its contractors have had to pay out about $1.8 billion in settlements and penalties.

The lawsuit was filed by Weaver and Matthew Welty, partners in a Healdsburg law firm, along with attorneys from firms in San Diego and New Orleans.

Weaver declined to estimate his clients’ total loss, and the lawsuit did not specify any amounts sought.

Weaver said he expects the case will go to trial, but if PG&E offers a settlement “we will consider it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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