Collective relief?

Poe Fire victims file a lawsuit against PG&E for last September’s blaze

HIGH WIRE ACT <br>A dead ponderosa pine falling onto and taking down one of these power lines is suspected as the cause of the 8,000-acre Poe Fire in the community of Yankee Hill last September.

A dead ponderosa pine falling onto and taking down one of these power lines is suspected as the cause of the 8,000-acre Poe Fire in the community of Yankee Hill last September.

Photo by Tom Angel

No disaster? Had the Poe Fire been declared a disaster by the state Emergency Operations Department, low-interest federal loans would have been made available to fire victims and the county reimbursed for cleanup. Only about 30 percent of the victims had fire insurance.

On the morning of Sept. 6, 2001, an 82- to 100-foot-tall dead ponderosa pine in the Feather River Canyon toppled over in the wind, snagged a 12,000-volt power line and sparked a fire that would burn for a week and destroy nearly 50 homes in and around the town of Yankee Hill.

That is according to an investigation by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Investigator James Sonteng. Last week two Chico attorneys filed a lawsuit in Butte County Superior Court on behalf of the people who lost property in the blaze that started near the Poe powerhouse. So far, 87 Yankee Hill residents have joined the suit that names Pacific Gas & Electric, Davey Tree Surgery and Western Environmental Consultants as the defendants.

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in March of last year, contracts with Davey and Western Environmental to maintain safe clearance between vegetation and the conductor lines the power company uses to transport electricity.

Attorneys Ken Roye and Mike Bush maintain that the dead ponderosa pine presented a hazard that PG&E should have removed, and that the company most likely was aware of the danger before the devastating fire.

“As ratepayers, we pay PG&E to maintain their easements through forest lands,” Bush said.

Western Consultants “cruises the easements and notify what trees are decayed, dead or otherwise pose a hazard of falling on equipment,” Bush explained. “Then they notify PG&E.”

PG&E spokesperson Lisa Randle said the company’s legal department is still reviewing the suit. She agreed the fire sparked when “a tree came into contact with a line.”

“PG&E is very proud of its vegetative management,” she said. “We utilize contractors in patrolling our lines. They are professional, and we rely on them.”

She said the lines where the fire is believed to have started were patrolled in August 1999 and again in November 2000.

Roye said PG&E looks to the insurance carried by the two vegetation management companies to cover liability in fires.

“With that being the case you have to wonder what kind of incentive PG&E has to maintain the lines.” he said.

PG&E’s bankruptcy filing does not afford the company any protection in this case, because the fire happened after the company filed. PG&E is protected only from debts it acquired before it declared bankruptcy.

Roye, who successfully sued PG&E for damage in the 1990 Tehama County Pine Creek Fire—the fifth largest wildfire in California history—says the dead pine should have been removed.

“There is no excuse for them not taking it out,” he said. “They definitely had the ability to do so.”

The tree, according to the CDF report, was clearly visible for 45 feet above the canopy of trees beneath it.

“PG&E is responsible, even if they hire other people to maintain the clearance,” Roye said.

There is some evidence, he said, of tree and vegetation clearing activities near where the suspected pine stood not long before the September fire.

The victims of the Poe Fire did not qualify for state disaster relief, even though 47 homes and a large number of vehicles, boats, outbuildings and perhaps five businesses were lost.

“Our issue is to get these individuals compensation for what they lost.”

Roye said the Pine Creek suit took five years to bring to trial, and PG&E settled two weeks into the trial.

'[PG&E] can do it the easy way, step up to the plate and admit they are at fault, or they can do it the hard way and I’ll prove they are at fault," Roye said.