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Santa Rosa poised to sue PG&E for the Kincade fire

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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.

The overall economic toll of the fire in Sonoma County was a formidable $620 million, according to a Moody’s Analytics estimate commissioned by the county. That includes an estimated $235 million in lost economic output and $385 million in property losses.

PG&E’s bankruptcy case is quickly coming to a resolution. The company is scheduled to present its final plan to be voted on by claimants, including wildfire victims, before a federal judge on March 10.

The bankruptcy judge could approve a negotiated settlement between PG&E and the city separate from that plan, said Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy expert and UC Hastings law professor.

Settling the city’s claim for damages from the Kincade fire in bankruptcy court could bring a faster resolution to the matter, benefiting both PG&E and the city, he said. PG&E could also choose to litigate the case in state court.

“You aren’t allowed to go into bankruptcy and escape liability,” Ellias said.

Santa Rosa City attorney Sue Gallagher said the city intends to file a claim against PG&E in bankruptcy court in addition to a civil complaint in state court and the case may be settled or adjudicated through one of those venues.

Gallagher contends the evidence linking PG&E equipment to the Kincade fire is strong. She cited video from a fire detection camera that showed the fire’s first eruption in the Geysers.

PG&E told state regulators it found a broken jumper cable from a transmission tower near the Kincade fire’s origin and had documented an equipment failure at about the same time and place as the fire’s start.

The $701,000 cost to the city includes $586,200 in personnel costs, mostly overtime pay for firefighters and emergency workers, as well as $115,487 in supplies, such as fuel, officials said.

Gallagher said the city is still calculating a host of other costs for the significant disruption to city services and other problems.

The fire disabled the city’s wastewater disposal pipeline at The Geysers for six weeks, backing up the Sebastopol-area plant with about 400 million gallons of treated wastewater.

“We’re still looking into all the calculations of the damages,” Gallagher said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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