Santa Rosa poised to sue PG&E for the Kincade fire
Santa Rosa is poised to take legal action against PG&E to recoup the cost of defending the city last year against the Kincade fire, the largest wildland blaze in Sonoma County history.
Costs to the city so far total $701,000, the bulk spent on overtime pay during the extended firefight to prevent flames from burning into neighborhoods still rebuilding from the 2017 firestorm. Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming said the city intends to seek compensation from PG&E for what it cost to save the city from another disaster.
“The cost to protect the city was significant,” Fleming said. “The fire came really, really close to city limits.”
The Kincade fire could be an early test for the state’s wildfire fund created last year to help utilities compensate victims when company equipment starts fires. PG&E could also opt to settle claims from the Kincade fire in U.S. Bankruptcy Court through a process allowing the company to resolve debts incurred after the company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2019.
The Kincade fire ignited Oct. 23 during a windstorm in a remote part of the Geysers geothermal area in the Mayacamas Mountains and it quickly spread into the Alexander Valley. The wind-driven blaze would repeatedly menace communities in Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa over the course of a week, leading authorities to empty whole towns in a record-setting evacuation of nearly 200,000 people.
The night the fire started, PG&E had cut electricity for much of the region because of the high fire risk created by dry conditions and strong winds. But it deactivated high-voltage transmission lines, including those near the fire’s origin that quickly became the focus of Cal Fire’s investigation into how the blaze started. That investigation is ongoing.
PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty declined to answer specific questions about how liabilities from the Kincade fire might impact the company’s fast-developing plan to exit bankruptcy protection, which the San Francisco-based utility sought last year under mounting liabilities from the 2017 Northern California firestorm and the 2018 Camp fire.
Doherty noted Cal Fire has not yet issued a final determination on what caused the fire.
He said PG&E workers are in the field daily inspecting equipment, hardening the company’s electrical systems, incorporating new technology and removing vegetation “toward the goal of mitigating wildfire risk.”
“We remain focused on doing everything we can to help impacted customers in Sonoma County recover and rebuild while further reducing wildfire risk,” Doherty said in an email.
Cal Fire spokesman Michael Mohler said the Kincade fire’s cause is still under investigation. The agency has no estimate for when it might come to a conclusion, he said.
Santa Rosa council members will vote Tuesday to hire the same firms already representing the city in its claims against PG&E for the 2017 fires to also initiate its case against the utility for the Kincade fire.
Those firms — Texas law firm Baron & Budd and San Diego-based Dixon Diab & Chambers — are also representing Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District as well as the Sonoma County Water Agency.
The city’s vote follows a January vote by Sonoma County supervisors to initiate its case against PG&E for the Kincade fire.