Growing number of lawsuits blame PG&E for destructive blaze

FILE - A vehicle destroyed by the Butte Fire sits on tireless rims at a home in Mountain Ranch, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli)

A blaze in Northern California that killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and burned 110 square miles is spawning lawsuits against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for allegedly failing to clear power lines.

At least four major lawsuits have been filed against PG&E and the companies it hired to clear power lines, the Sacramento Bee reported Saturday.

The danger of highly destructive fires in the tinder-dry foothills of Calaveras County during the drought made tree trimming around power lines more crucial, plaintiffs' lawyers contend in the lawsuits. The fire, which began on Sept. 9, was the result of PG&E's negligence in keeping the lines clear, they said.

Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said fire officials "haven't announced a cause yet, but we're working closely with PG&E and looking at what they say may have caused it."

The fire began near Butte Mountain Road, a rural byway east of Jackson in southern Amador County. It jumped the Mokelumne River into Calaveras County and raced up forested slopes, driven by gusting winds.

PG&E has publicly acknowledged the possibility that one of its power lines might have started the blaze.

"While we don't have all the facts yet, a live tree may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point," Barry Anderson, PG&E's vice president of emergency preparedness and operations, said during a Cal Fire briefing on Sept. 16 in Angels Camp. "We are cooperating fully with Cal Fire in an investigation of whether this could have been a source of ignition for the Butte fire."

The medium-size gray pine that may have started the fire was cut down and is stored in a Cal Fire evidence area near Auburn, according to Plaintiffs' lawyers.

Fred Slifkoff, the lead plaintiff in one of the main lawsuits, said he wouldn't be surprised if a PG&E power line had sparked the inferno.

The retired schoolteacher, 80, lost his rural home in the blaze. He said he tried for years to get utility crews to keep the power lines near his house free of branches but rarely felt they'd done an adequate job.

"I received all kinds of excuses from them," Slifkoff said. "In my estimation, it was a case where a big conglomerate corporation has control over an area to deliver electricity, and they don't want to spend all the money they should to clear brush and protect homes and homeowners."
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