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Lawsuits Accuse PG&E of Starting Massive Dixie Fire

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Two lawsuits have been filed on behalf of nearly 200 people alleging Pacific Gas and Electric caused the massive Dixie Fire which has burned nearly one million acres in five Northern California counties.

The lawsuits alleged the wildfire was sparked on July 13 following several blown fuses and PG&E equipment malfunctions off Highway 70 in the Feather River Canyon in Butte County. A power outage in the area was reported by PG&E's outage system at 7 a.m. that day, but a PG&E troubleman did not arrive at the scene until after 4 p.m.

According to the complaint, plaintiffs say they believe the Dixie Fire was caused by a Douglas Fir tree leaning into PG&E's high voltage distribution line, which the blown fuses were designed to protect. They allege that the fire happened because PG&E's infrastructure was constructed to pass electricity through exposed power lines in vegetated areas, and because the company was negligent in maintaining and operating its equipment and in keeping appropriate clearance from surrounding vegetation.

Although no formal findings have been reached, PG&E has acknowledged to regulators that a tree leaning into one of its power lines may have started the Dixie Fire now the second-largest in state history.

"It's clear that PG&E started this fire. The best thing they can do is to acknowledge that fact and make the survivors whole," said  the plaintiff's lead attorney Gerald Singleton in a prepared statement. "We're committed to helping our clients get the resources they need to rebuild their homes and their lives, and we look forward to advancing these cases and serving as their advocate in court."

The lawsuits were filed Tuesday, a day after a federal court hearing in San Francisco in which the judge grilled the PG&E troubleshooter for nearly two hours over whether the utility could have turned off the electricity sooner to a power line suspected of starting the fire.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup and a lawyer from the U.S. attorney's office spent most of the hearing trying to construct the timeline between when the PG&E troubleshooter first was sent out to a remote area of Butte County where the Dixie Fire is believed to have started and several hours later, when he first smelled smoke.

The identity of the troubleshooter was not revealed in court to help shield him from potential threats.

PG&E has been blamed for some of the deadliest wildfires in California, and has negotiated more than $25 billion in settlements during a 17-month bankruptcy that ended last year.

Alsup is overseeing PG&E's criminal probation for a felony conviction after the utility's gas lines blew up part of a suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010. The judge is now weighing whether he can impose more stringent conditions on PG&E before his authority expires when the company's five-year probation ends in late January.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits just filed are homeowners, renters, and business owners, according to Singleton. They are seeking damages for property repair, depreciation and replacement costs, loss of use, lost wages, medical expenses, evacuation expenses, among other general damages, as well as punitive damages and attorneys' fees.

PG&E said it has not yet received notification of a lawsuit. In a statement the utility said,

PG&E's most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We continue to support the firefighters and first responders working to contain the Dixie Fire. CAL FIRE has not made a determination on the cause of the fire, and we have not been able to review the evidence CAL FIRE collected. We remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area, and are committed to doing everything we can to keep our customers and communities safe.


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