Jury finds PacifiCorp liable for 2020 Oregon wildfires

Plaintiffs claim to have seen electrical equipment sparking fires, according to Stoll Berne, one of the firms representing them in court.
Power lines

A jury has found PacifiCorp liable for causing Oregon wildfires in 2020.

“Regardless of the outcome, a trial will never fully restore what was lost,” a PacifiCorp news release reads. “The company plans to pursue appeals, and we are confident we will prevail.”

Jurors ruled June 12 in the Multnomah County Circuit Court that energy provider PacifiCorp helped cause some of the state’s Labor Day 2020 wildfires, including the Santiam Canyon Fire, the Echo Mountain Complex Fire and the South Obenchain and 242 fires, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jurors found the company owed more than $73 million total to the 17 plaintiffs in James v. PacifiCorp. The jury decided on June 14 to also award punitive damages, potentially raising the amount owed to plaintiffs to nearly $90 million.

Most punitive damages go to the Oregon Department of Justice under state law, but plaintiffs get priority if the defendant cannot pay everything, according to OPB. PacifiCorp argued the verdict could cost billions, total, after compensating thousands of victims.

Plaintiffs allege PacifiCorp paved the way for wildfires after failing to take proper maintenance and safety steps, according to a 2020 complaint acquired by Reuters.

“Despite being warned of extremely critical fire conditions, defendants left their power lines energized,” the complaint reads. “Powerlines ignited massive, deadly and destructive fires that raced down the canyons, igniting and destroying homes, businesses and schools.”

Plaintiffs claim to have seen electrical equipment sparking fires, according to Stoll Berne, one of the firms representing them in court.

PacifiCorp, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, said it takes preventative measures like hosting emergency management, meteorology and data science teams, hundreds of weather stations, “grid hardening,” fire-risk software and vegetation management.

“We are committed to working with impacted communities to ensure everyone can thrive in our collective new reality. Wildfire remains a complex issue and the threat of wildfire continues to grow,” a PacifiCorp news release reads. “Holistic perspective and public-private leadership will be essential to adapt.”

PacifiCorp said its workers filled their duties in the face of the Beachie Creek fire near Santiam Canyon, which lightning ignited on Aug. 16, 2020. The company claimed this fire then spread into the Santiam Canyon. The U.S. Forest Service said some smaller fires had ignited in that area, the causes for which had been undetermined.

The 2020 Labor Day Wildfires, in total, burned more than 1.2 million acres, destroyed more than 5,000 homes and businesses and took nine lives, according to a 2022 report from the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon Debris Management Task Force.

The state found it cost $355 million to remove hazardous household waste, dangerous trees, ash and debris as of June 30, 2022.

The Northwest fire season typically runs from May to October. Central and Southeastern Oregon will see significant wildfire potential this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and the whole state of Washington will likely see significant wildfire potential starting in July. Its officials are advising residents how to prepare.