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To date, investigators have yet to determine the cause of a series of fires that destroyed over 5,000 structures and killed over 40 people in northern California's wine country. But one Santa Rosa couple thinks they know the culprit: Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
Wayne and Jennifer Harvell are suing PG&E, claiming the company failed to properly maintain the areas around some of its power lines, allowing vegetation to come into contact with electrical equipment and sparking fires that the state insurance commissioner estimates caused over $1 billion in damage.
PG&E, according to the lawsuit, was "aware that fire danger was at an extraordinarily high level, particularly given the increased vegetation arising from the 2017 winter rains." That increased vegetation turned to tinder during subsequent drought-like conditions, and PG&E was allegedly "negligent in that they failed to properly repair, and inspect the subject lines, equipment and adjacent vegetation and negligently failed to properly trim, prune, remove, and/or otherwise maintain vegetation near the electrical equipment so as to secure safety to the public in general."
The Sacramento Bee reported at least ten 911 calls in Sonoma County claiming downed PG&E transformers and power lines "sparking and arcing" in the early hours of the fires. The Harvells' lawsuit claims the same high winds that contributed to the rapid devastation from the fires caused "power lines and/or other electrical equipment [to come into] contact with vegetation and caused the Wine Country Fires, which burned in excess of 220,000 acres, including property owned or occupied by these plaintiffs.
Although the Harvells are just two of thousands of victims of the fires, they did not file their complaint as a class action, and are seeking damages for the replacement or repair of their home, lost wages, and past and future medical expenses along with legal fees. PG&E, which reportedly carries some $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses, told Courthouse News it was "focused on supporting firefighting efforts to contain the fires and protect life and property."
"Once it is safe to do so, restoring power and gas service safely and as quickly as possible will be our priority," PG&E spokeswoman Angela Lombardi wrote. "We aren't going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency."