A state senator is suggesting that PG&E will have to be broken up if it turns out to be found guilty of negligence in causing the wildfires that ripped through Northern California over the last nine days, and the first of what is likely to be a tsunami of lawsuits has been filed by a couple who lost their home to the Tubbs Fire.
As the Associated Press reports, an attorney for Santa Rosa homeowners Wayne and Jennifer Harvell filed the suit in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, barely over a week after the Tubbs Fire tore through several neighborhoods and destroyed over 5,000 buildings.
The suit alleges that PG&E failed to adequately trim vegetation around power lines following a particularly wet winter, leading to increased risk of wildfires.
Gerald Singleton, a lawyer who's representing some homeowners and renters displaced by the fires, tells the AP that PG&E should have anticipated the high wind conditions that played a role in spreading the fires, and likely played a role in their ignition as well. "We can't get rid of all possible risks," Singleton said. "It really is based on reasonableness and that is what their duty is."
PG&E's stock price went tumbling last week as investors imagine the utility could face billions in liabilities due to the fires.
Meanwhile, California State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) is calling for PG&E potentially to be split up if the utility is found responsible in failing to adequately prevent against these wildfires. As Hill tells the Chronicle, "If we find that in this particular case and we don’t know the cause yet then frankly I don’t think PG&E should do business in California anymore. They’ve crossed the line too many times. They need to be dissolved in some way, split."
Hill has been after PG&E ever since a ruptured gas line caused a massive inferno in San Bruno in 2010, and the utility was ultimately found culpable of failing to properly inspect and maintain the gas line. As late as last August, PG&E's lawyers were still trying to get that conviction overturned.
As the Chronicle reported last week, PG&E spent $198 million on "vegetation management" in 2016, chopping down some 236,000 trees.
PG&E CEO Geisha Williams tells the Chronicle this week that she's too busy dealing with fixing the tens of thousands of outages they're still dealing with to focus on investigating causes in the fires. She also points out that many factors, including climate change, are likely to blame, noting for instance San Francisco's record-breaking 106-degree day last month. "When you think about all these things together, you have to ask yourself what are the right climate strategies we need? It’s not, ‘Oh, we need to trim more trees,'" Williams tells the Chron.
The California Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, sent letters to PG&E and six telecommunications companies on Friday instructing them to preserve every piece of damaged equipment from the fire zones as it may become evidence in the investigation to come.
Senator Hill authored a bill that was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last year that will require all utilities to file annual wildfire prevention and mitigation plans with the CPUC, but those filings haven't yet begun.
As for what PG&E already does when it comes to vegetation management, Hill thinks the CPUC has never done enough to scrutinize PG&E's efforts. "Generally, the commission takes their word for it, and then what we get is a disaster or a tragedy," he told the Chronicle.