210115-nrr-archieerosion-04 (copy)

The remains of trees burned in the Archie Creek Fire near the Swiftwater Trailhead in the Umpqua National Forest in January.

Four insurance companies have filed a lawsuit against PacifiCorp and its subsidiary, Pacific Power, seeking more than $3 million for purported negligence in the Archie Creek Fire last year.

Travelers Personal Insurance Co., Standard Fire Insurance Co., Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Co. and Automobile Insurance Co., jointly filed the complaint Monday in Douglas County Circuit Court.

The insurance companies, all based in Connecticut, are represented by Christopher J. Brennan, an attorney with the Portland law firm Bauman, Loewe, Witt & Maxwell, PLLC.

“This suit is a subrogation action seeking redress for property damage, loss of use, and other related losses resulting from the Fire,” the complaint said.

Pacific Power provides electric service to more than 770,000 customers in Oregon, Washington and California. Pacific Power is part of PacifiCorp, which has 2 million customers in six western states, according to its website.

The Susan Creek Fire, Smith Springs Fire, and Archie Creek Fire all began on Sept. 8, 2020, in the Umpqua National Forest in Douglas County, east of Glide, along Highway 138. The three fire origins ultimately merged on or about Sept. 9, 2020. The Susan Creek Fire, Smith Springs Fire, and Archie Creek, became collectively known as the Archie Creek Fire.

It destroyed more than 130,000 acres, 154 primary residences, and damaged many other structures.

According to the complaint, the National Weather Service warned on Sept. 6, 2020, that critical fire weather would blow in the following day, with easterly winds gusting in excess of 50 mph and relative humidity dropping below 20%. These are extremely dangerous and foreseeable wildfire conditions.

Throughout the day and evening of Sept. 7, 2020, the National Weather Service warned that Oregon would experience a severe wind event. Strong easterly winds could develop and likely peak on the evening of Sept. 7, 2020. Oregon was already in the midst of severe drought conditions, and numerous other wildfires had erupted throughout Oregon since the beginning of the fire season.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued a red flag warning from Sept. 7, 2020, at 11 p.m. through Sept. 9, 2020, at 5 p.m. The statement included references to forecasted strong, gusty winds along with relative low humidity. The area was already in extreme fire danger.

Pacific Power’s electrical transmission and distribution system, including but not limited to electrical facilities, powerlines, conductors, power poles, reclosers, and all other electrical equipment, “are inherently dangerous and hazardous instrumentalities, and Pacific Power knows this,” according to the complaint.

The transmission and distribution of electricity requires Pacific Power to exercise an increased level of care commensurate with and proportionate to the increased risk of danger associated with their electrical transmission and distribution system, the complaint said.

Pacific Power thereafter negligently and improperly re-energized its powerlines without ensuring they were clear of and/or had not come into contact with trees or other surrounding vegetation, according to the complaint.

“The fire was caused by negligent and improper maintenance, inspection, ownership, and operation of the powerlines and surrounding vegetation, owned, operated and maintained by Pacific Power,” the complaint said.

Even though Pacific Power knew that its electrical system was “old and aging, unsafe, and/or vulnerable to weather and environmental conditions,” it failed to keep the lines clear of vegetation and failed to take preventative measures in the face of known high-risk weather conditions, the complaint said.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 2020, Pacific Power’s powerlines failed, causing surrounding vegetation to ignite about 3 miles downriver from the community of Steamboat, the complaint alleges.

“This ignition is the Archie Creek Fire origin,” according to the complaint. “The Archie Creek Fire ignited due to Pacific Power’s failure to properly identify and mitigate hazard trees and maintain vegetation near its transmission lines.”

At about 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2020, approximately 7 miles downriver from the Archie Creek Fire origin, the power went out. This was not the result of Pacific Power’s decision to de-energize powerlines following the ignition of the Archie Creek Fire, but rather the wind event warned by the National Weather Service, the complaint said.

Later that morning and while the power was still out, several residents noted that a tree had fallen and was leaning against a Pacific Power distribution line off Susan Creek Road. At about 8:30 a.m., on Sept. 8, 2020, residents reported their power flickering on and off as Pacific Power attempted to re-energize its powerlines.

Prior to this attempt to re-energize, Pacific Power failed to ensure its powerlines had not fallen to the ground as a result of the severe high winds, and/or had come in contact with vegetation near the powerlines, the complaint said.

Shortly after the reported power flickering, residents reported a fire burning near the location on Susan Creek Road where the tree was observed touching the powerlines. This ignition was the Susan Creek Fire origin.

Around this same time near Smith Springs Road, approximately 1 1/2 miles downriver from Susan Creek Road, nearby residents reported the same flickering of their power. As the power flickered, residents observed smoke where Pacific Power failed to ensure its powerlines had not come into contact with vegetation and/or fallen as a result of the severe high winds.

A resident successfully put out two fires, however, a third spread beyond his control. This was the Smith Springs Fire. At some point on Sept. 9, 2020, the Archie Creek Fire, Susan Creek Fire, and Smith Springs Fire merged into one fire.

Pacific Power had a duty of vigilant oversight in the maintenance, use, operation, repair, and inspection that is appropriate to the changing conditions and circumstances of its electrical system, the complaint said. Prior to the fire, the company knew, or should have known, that its electrical system, including its powerlines, were subject to a foreseeable risk for fire.

Despite that, the company failed to clear trees and vegetation near its power lines, the complaint alleges.

Pacific Power breached its duties in more than a dozen ways, the complaint said, including:

  • Failing to conduct frequent inspections of its electrical system.
  • Failing to design, construct, monitor, and maintain its high voltage transmission and distribution powerlines in a safe manner.
  • Failing to ensure trees near its powerlines were healthy and would not fall onto power lines, and failing to remove or trim trees and vegetation near the power lines.
  • Failing to shut down the power lines despite repeated warnings of dangerous conditions.

Because of these deficiencies, the insurance companies had customers who made claims for damages due to the fire, which in turn cost the insurance companies money, the complaint said.

The insurance companies are seeking at least $3 million in damages, plus attorney costs and other fees.

A spokesperson for PacifiCorp said corporate policy is to not comment on any ongoing litigation.

Scott Carroll can be reached at scarroll@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4204. Or follow him on Twitter @scottcarroll15.

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(1) comment

Huge bbfan

What are the environmental regulations that prohibited them from clearing the trees along the power lines? Probably the same ones that prevent you from clearing hazard trees along roadways. And how is Pacific power to prevent arson?

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