Burned out Paradise resident: ‘I’m suing.’ Is PG&E in financial peril?

Doreen Zimmerman of Paradise lost her home of 29 years last week, fleeing with her new litter of a dozen puppies in the family car as flaming embers rained down.

She isn’t sure if she will return. “Will I be able to sleep if I live there?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

One thing she says she knows: She’s suing.

Zimmerman, a real estate appraiser, works for a California law firm that has repeatedly filed class action lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric and other utility companies, alleging their equipment failures caused many of California’s horrific string of recent wildfires.

“You betcha,” Zimmerman said while buying furniture for a rental home in Yuba City, where she and her husband will live with two daughters who also lost their homes when the Camp Fire stormed through. The blaze destroyed an estimated 90 percent of residences and has taken 42 lives as of the official count on Monday.

“If it was PG&E or whomever, I’m going to sue whoever was taking their stupid a-- bonuses instead of taking care of what they were supposed to take care of,” she said.

The talk of blame is speculative. Cal Fire investigators have not said what caused the fire, and are unlikely to for some time because they are still investigating.

Notably, though, PG&E on Friday sent an incident report to the California Public Utilities Commission advising it of an outage at its 115-kilovolt line on Pulga Road in Butte County at 6:15 a.m. in the area where the Camp Fire started, minutes before the fire was spotted and reported.

“There has been no determination of the cause of the fire,” PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in a statement. “Right now, we are doing everything we can to support the communities and first responders.”

Should Zimmerman sue, she won’t be the first.

Bay Area attorney Mike Danko on Tuesday filed a suit against PG&E in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of 20 Camp Fire victims, saying he went forward quickly because he believes PG&E caused the fire, and wants the authority to subpoena the utility company.

“This has to stop,” he told The Bee. “This has to come to an end. Many people want to wait to see what Cal Fire concludes (in its investigation of the cause), but Cal Fire’s opinions are irrelevant in court. We must prove it ourselves.”

PG&E’s stock has felt immediate heat from the Camp Fire, plummeting from $49 a share before the fire to $23 as of Wednesday mid-morning.

In a federal Securities and Exchange Commission filing this week, the company acknowledged potential trouble:

“While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, if the Utility’s equipment is determined to be the cause, the Utility could be subject to significant liability in excess of insurance coverage that would be expected to have a material impact on PG&E Corporation’s and the Utility’s financial condition, results of operations, liquidity, and cash flows,” the filing read.

Fearful that fire liability costs could bankrupt utilities, the Legislature this year passed a law to let them charge customers more to cover lawsuit costs from 2017 wildfires and future wildfires sparked after Jan. 1, 2019. The possibility that PG&E will be found responsible for the Camp Fire, to which the law doesn’t apply because it started this year, raises similar concerns.

Residents and state officials have criticized PG&E over a bevy of wildfires tied to downed power lines that swept through the state in October 2017. Investigative reports in May and June from the Cal Fire linked PG&E to 16 fires in 2017 that killed 18 people and destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings.

Attorney Jerry Singleton of the San Diego-based Singleton Law Firm, which has been involved in numerous fire-related lawsuits against utility companies, hinted at a possible avenue this week for new legal challenges, based on the Camp Fire. He questioned PG&E’s decision last week not to cut power to mountain areas when it knew high winds were coming through.

“From everything I have heard, this area where the fire started is known for having winds,” Singleton said. “The reasonably prudent practice is to ... to shut off power in (high wind) areas. They didn’t, and that is a decision we are gong to look at.”

Before the Camp Fire broke out, PG&E CEO Geisha Williams told investors on an earnings call that the utility was already planning to ask the Legislature for more relief by changing the strict “inverse condemnation” liability standard to which it’s currently held.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said this week wildfires will be “top-of-mind” for lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session, but she and others did not offer specific actions that might be taken.

“Right now we are dealing with two large-scale wildfires – one of which is the most devastating wildfire in California’s history – and all our attention needs to be focused on that,” Atkins, the San Diego Democrat said in a statement. “I applaud Governor Brown for his focused attention on this matter and I look forward to working with him and incoming Governor Newsom to address this problem.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, who authored the law passed earlier this year, doesn’t have specific plans for fire-related legislation in the upcoming session, Dodd’s spokesman Paul Payne said, although the Napa Democrat might look into some wildfire safety or prevention measures.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a longtime critic of PG&E, said he’d like to start a conversation about whether the utilities have become too big.

“PG&E, I’ve found, is more concerned about Wall Street than they ever have been with safety,” the San Mateo Democrat said. “We can’t go on this way. We can’t have our state destroyed every year.”

At a joint press conference with Gov. Jerry Brown Tuesday, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom said it was too early to decide what the state should do if equipment from utility companies is found responsible for sparking the fires currently burning in the state.

“There’s a lot of expression of concern across the board. I’ve had the opportunity not only to dialogue with the governor, but obviously, a number of stakeholders, including representatives from PG&E themselves,” Newsom said. “We’re going to assess all of those facts. The governor is in the process of the doing the same, obviously, and we’ll see where we are when the baton is handed.”

Newsom says the law Brown signed this year, SB901, is a “good first step.”

Brown said there was nothing California could have done to stop the “unprecedented” destruction of the fires, which he attributed to a changing climate that has made winds faster, temperatures hotter and soils and vegetation drier at this time of year.

“Some things only God can do,” he said. “It’s a tragedy, and we as human beings have to be humble in the face of it, but also resolute and determined.”

In Butte County, the investigation into the fire’s cause inched forward this week, as searchers conducted the grim task of sifting through ruins to find and identify the dead.

The state PUC, which regulates PG&E, said Monday it is assessing “the compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations in fire impacted areas,” likely including inspection of the fire sites, and will be assessing “maintenance of facilities, vegetation management, and emergency preparedness and response.”

In a public statements, PG&E said it “will fully cooperate with any investigations.”

Zimmerman says she is resolute about restarting her life, but isn’t sure it should be in Paradise. The home she and her husband lost on Roberts Lane was like a Ma and Pa Kettle house, filled with knack-knacks from around the globe. She wonders who in town will rebuild.

“Paradise was such a way of life, and it is just gone.”

This story was updated Wednesday to include information on PG&E’s most recent federal filing, and to include stock price information.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee