Poe fire victims consider their legal options

Local attorney Ken Roye said this week that he’s planning to file a major lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, charging it with responsibility for damages related to the Poe fire.

Roye met with about 50 homeowners last weekend in Yankee Hill to discuss the impending case. Many of them, he said, appear ready to sign onto the suit.

The fire charred more than 8,000 acres of the foothills above Oroville, along with much of the tiny community of Yankee Hill. At its height, more than 2,100 firefighters from around the country were battling the flames, and hundreds of residents were evacuated to shelters.

The fire destroyed 47 homes, three commercial structures, 120 outbuildings and 155 vehicles, making it the most destructive fire in Butte County history. According to the California Department of Forestry, which fought and investigated the fire, it caused more than $6 million in damages.

A CDF-led investigation of the fire has determined that a branch falling from a dead tree onto a PG&E-owned power line sparked the fire. And that, Roye said, makes PG&E responsible for the considerable damage claims of the residents who were burned out of their homes.

He declined to reveal how many of the 47 families who lost homes would be part of the suit he’s researching, other than to say it’s a “substantial” number. Hundreds of people evacuated from their homes in the blaze are only just recently being allowed back in to evaluate the damages.

However, PG&E representative Lisa Randle said that her company is conducting its own investigation into the cause of the fire. Until everything is complete, she said, it’s too early to assign blame.

“Right now, it’s still a complicated mystery as to the origins and causes of this fire,” she said.

Randle noted that the utility company could be found legally liable for causing the fire and required to pay damages, even though it is currently in bankruptcy hearings.

This isn’t the first time Roye has represented burned-out fire victims in suits against PG&E. He successfully sued the power company in 1986, after the Doe Mill Ridge fire burned out eight residents, and again in 1990, after the Campbell Complex fire in Tehama County burned 80 families’ homes down. PG&E power lines were found to have caused both fires.

The Campbell Complex suit resulted in a “seven-figure” settlement, Roye said, although a confidentiality clause prevented him from revealing the exact amount.

Roye said that a preliminary investigation he’s performing shows “distinct similarities” between the Poe fire and the other two he’s been involved in litigating. He plans to file suit when his investigation and the CDF’s are complete.

"We want these people who lost their homes to be able to rebuild," he said. "Someone has to take responsibility for what they’ve gone through."