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PG&E sued by El Dorado and Placer counties over destructive 2022 Mosquito Fire

Sacramento Bee 1/19/2023 Michael McGough, The Sacramento Bee
A hillside near Forestville smolders Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, after the Mosquito Fire burned through. © Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee/TNS A hillside near Forestville smolders Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, after the Mosquito Fire burned through.

El Dorado and Placer counties have filed suit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. alleging that PG&E equipment caused last year’s destructive Mosquito Fire.

“El Dorado County’s lawsuit seeks all recoverable damages allowed under the law caused by the fire,” David Livingston, El Dorado County counsel, said in a prepared statement Thursday morning. “The lawsuit seeks to hold PG&E accountable and to help our community rebuild after this devastating fire.”

The Mosquito Fire ignited Sept. 6 near the Oxbow Reservoir at the Middle Fork American River, burning nearly 77,000 acres (120 square miles). It destroyed 78 structures, including dozens of homes in the Placer County community of Michigan Bluff and the El Dorado County town of Volcanoville, before being contained Oct. 27, according to Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.

Some 11,000 residents were ordered to evacuate over the course of the fire, including the towns of Georgetown and Foresthill, as the blaze jumped the American River in each direction during its wind-swept runs.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court, includes the El Dorado Water Agency, Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District and Georgetown Divide Fire Protection District as co-plaintiffs, El Dorado County officials said in a news release.

The county filed the lawsuit one day before PG&E officials were due to appear in Shasta County Superior Court for a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and which Cal Fire investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Shasta prosecutors charged PG&E with four counts of involuntary manslaughter; the utility company pleaded not guilty in June.

“We recognize the impact that Mosquito Fire has had on these communities,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in an emailed statement. “PG&E filed an Electric Incident Report with the California Public Utilities Commission in September. There has been no official determination of cause of the Mosquito Fire and the U.S. Forest Service’s investigation is ongoing. We are cooperating fully with this effort.”

The Placer County Water Agency filed a separate lawsuit in December, in Placer Superior Court, blaming PG&E for the fire and alleging that damage to its electricity transmission infrastructure and stopped energy production at the Middle Fork American River Project, costing the water agency tens of millions of dollars in power production sales.

The official cause of the Mosquito Fire remains under investigation by state and federal fire authorities. But a criminal investigation was launched in September into the role PG&E may have played in starting the fire; the investor-owned utility company in regulatory filings said “an electrical fault” occurred in its equipment near the origin point of the fire, just before the blaze started.

The 38-page lawsuit filed by El Dorado County accuses PG&E of negligence, trespassing and other health and safety violations. It argues that the Mosquito Fire destroyed private property as well as public infrastructure.

Among other damages, the suit seeks to recoup costs of fire suppression; law enforcement costs and overtime; administration, funding and operation of emergency operations and evacuation shelters; and lost tax revenue, court documents show.

“These wildfires were not the result of an ‘act of God’ or other force majeure,” the complaint reads, in part. “These wildfires were started by sparks from high-voltage transmission lines, distribution lines, appurtenances, and other electrical equipment within PG&E’s utility infrastructure that ignited surrounding vegetation.

“Despite these previous wildfires,” including the 2021 Dixie Fire and 2020 Zogg Fire, “defendants have deliberately, and repeatedly, prioritized profits over safety.”

El Dorado County said it will be represented in the lawsuit by outside counsel John Fiske and Torri Sherlin of Baron & Budd, and Ed Diab of Dixon Diab & Chambers.

PG&E agrees to $24M settlement over Dixie Fire

Earlier this week, PG&E agreed to pay $24 million to five California counties and five other public entities in a settlement deal for damages caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire incident in state history, officials said this week.

The $24 million settlement announced this week will be allocated to Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties; the city of Susanville; Plumas District Hospital; the Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority; and the Chester and Herlong public utility districts, Shasta County officials said in a news release.

“The counties and other public entities came together to recover these significant funds to reimburse public and natural resources lost in the fire,” Rubin E. Cruse, Jr., Shasta County counsel, said in a prepared statement. “Holding PG&E accountable is increasingly important as utility-caused wildfires continue to ravage the state and region.”

The Dixie Fire sparked July 13, 2021, in Butte County’s Feather River Canyon near Cresta Dam. It destroyed more than 1,300 structures, according to Cal Fire, ultimately growing to 963,309 acres (1,505 square miles). It took crews more than three months to secure full containment of the blaze.

Faulty PG&E power lines were determined to have ignited the Dixie Fire, Cal Fire investigators said in January 2022.

“This settlement represents the most recent step in our efforts to make things right following the disaster,” Noonan, the PG&E spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “We remain focused on working closely with our local government partners, and other stakeholders, toward our shared and unwavering goal of safety.”

The latest settlement comes on top of the $55 million PG&E agreed to pay last year in a deal cut with six California counties’ district attorneys’ offices. That deal, announced in April, was to avoid criminal prosecution in connection with the Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire, which burned in Sonoma County.

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