Santa Rosa sues PG&E over October wildfires

Santa Rosa is joining with several other local governments seeking compensation from the utility for taxpayer costs incurred because of the disaster.|

Santa Rosa is suing PG&E over the damage caused by October’s devastating wildfires and their aftermath, joining a broader legal fight involving several other local governments seeking compensation from the utility for taxpayer costs incurred because of the disaster.

Santa Rosa filed the lawsuit July 11 in Sonoma County Superior Court and announced it Tuesday after the city attorney disclosed the filing in a report to the City Council. Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties are already suing the utility over the fires, which leveled entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, including much of Fountaingrove and Coffey Park. The fires destroyed 5,300 homes in Sonoma County and killed 24 people.

A city spokeswoman said the suit will be consolidated with others filed by local governments.

Vice Mayor Chris Rogers said the city has been discussing the issue for months and gave its legal staff the authority to move forward if Cal Fire finds PG&E’s equipment to be responsible for the fires.

While Cal Fire’s report on the deadly Tubbs fire is not out yet, the agency has determined that PG&E power equipment was responsible for causing 16 other major fires across Northern California in October, including blazes that burned across Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties. Those findings gave city officials confidence to move forward with the suit, believing PG&E “will also be found to have contributed significantly to the cause of the Tubbs fire,” city officials said in a Tuesday statement.

“We’re trying to make sure we pursue every avenue for making our community whole,” Rogers said in an interview.

PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility is still reviewing Santa Rosa’s lawsuit.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers and communities we serve. Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires,” she said. “We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”

Separately, the utility is being sued by hundreds of North Bay residents who lost their homes in the fires.

Santa Rosa officials said in their statement Tuesday that the city’s lawsuit seeks recovery of unspecified financial damages and allows the city to join others hoping to make PG&E “implement new safety measures to prevent future disasters.”

“Our city suffered tremendous social and economic loss and faces millions of dollars of expense for emergency response and recovery efforts, including the ongoing work of rebuilding damaged infrastructure,” the statement said. “We must take action to seek fair compensation and reimbursement from the responsible parties, so that our community can move forward toward full recovery and secure the future safety of our citizens.”

The 74-page lawsuit accuses PG&E of “well-documented systemic failures, including lack of adequate safety regulations, inspection, maintenance, and risk management practices” that caused or contributed to the October fires, the most destructive in state history.

While the various fires that ignited around Northern California had different origin points, the suit says all of them “share the same underlying causes,” having arisen from the utility’s inattention to “mandated safety practices and foreseeable hazardous risks associated with its infrastructure.”

The suit also accuses PG&E of a “willful and conscious disregard of public safety.” It seeks an award of financial damages on several fronts, including for replacement of destroyed property, economic losses, the operation of evacuation centers, staff overtime, additional law enforcement costs and damage to public infrastructure.

Separately, the city is requesting $95 million in reimbursement from the federal government for fire expenses and damage, but it’s not clear when those funds will come through. Gov. Jerry Brown also allocated $21.8 million to help fire-affected Northern California counties cover property-tax losses.

Santa Rosa retained the law firm Baron & Budd in April and signed a contract in late May calling for the firm to receive 18 percent of whatever the city recovers.

Mayor Chris Coursey said the decision to sue PG&E “has been a long time coming.”

“It’s a way for the city to protect the interests of the city and the interests of the taxpayers,” he said.

Coursey declined to discuss why Santa Rosa filed its lawsuit before Cal Fire released its report on the Tubbs fire, which destroyed the vast majority of the nearly 3,100 homes lost in the city in October.

“We’ll find out what we find out when the Tubbs report comes out and go from there,” Coursey said. “Once we get the reports, I’ll have more to say.”

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean couldn’t estimate Tuesday when the Tubbs fire report would be finished.

“We’re waiting for a few things to come back,” he said. “It’s still an ongoing investigation. When it’s done, it’s done, and we’ll get it out because we owe it to the public.”

Of the 16 Northern California fires caused last year by PG&E power equipment, according to Cal Fire, state investigators found evidence in 11 blazes that the San Francisco utility violated state codes designed to prevent fires by keeping tree limbs clear from power lines. Those findings have been forwarded to local district attorneys for review.

In April, PG&E filed a claim against Santa Rosa saying if PG&E is found liable for the fires, the city may share responsibility because of the “inadequacy” of the local fire response and preparations.

The utility has made similar legal filings against other government agencies, including Sonoma County, saying it was only doing so to preserve its rights to spread the liability for damage from the fires, which killed 44 people across Northern California and destroyed about 6,200 homes.

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