The Dixie Fire ignited on July 13th, 2021, and burned 963,309 acres in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen, and Tehama counties. It is the 2nd largest wildfire in recorded California history. The fire cost more than $637 million to suppress, destroyed 1,311 structures (including more than 700 homes), and damaged at least 94 more structures. One firefighter died due to Covid-19 illness suspected to have been contracted during suppression efforts, and four more were injured.
The fire was declared 100% contained on October 25th, 2021. On January 4th, 2022, CAL Fire announced its determination that the Dixie Fire was caused by a tree that fell on Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) powerlines. With the help of severe drought and the hottest summer ever recorded in California, the fire burned for over three months. It devastated many communities and caused millions of dollars in private and public property damage. PG&E is facing legal and financial repercussions, including a class action lawsuit for airbourne pollution from the fire. According to an SEC filing, PG&E said damages from the Dixie fire could exceed $1.15 billion.
A statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. According to the California Judicial Branch, the statute of limitations for the following legal disputes in California are:
Personal injury: Two years from the injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is 1 year from the date the injury was discovered.
Property damage: Three years from the date the damage occurred.
A power outage occurred at approximately 7 am on July 13th, cutting off power to Cresta Dam in Feather River Canyon. A PG&E troubleman was dispatched to the scene and observed what he believed to be a blown fuse on a 12-kV distribution circuit across the Feather River.
PG&E did not indicate in its Safety Incident Report what time the troubleman first arrived on the scene, and declined to respond to detailed questions about the timeline. However, the report did indicate that because of challenging terrain and road work, the worker was not able to cross the river and reach the pole with the blown fuse until approximately 4:40 pm. Once there, the worker noticed two blown fuses and a fire near the base of a tree that had fallen into the conductor. The Dixie Fire was reported at approximately 5:07 pm, named after nearby Dixie Road.
On January 4th, 2022, CAL Fire determined that the Dixie Fire was caused by a tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E. A 65’ tall Douglas-fir tree reportedly fell and contacted conductors at approximately 6:48 am. Two of three fuses blew, leaving one line energized. With the tree still in contact, this created a fault that caused heat and arcing to ignite the dry fuel bed below.
A consultant for CAL Fire concluded “the tree that fell across the conductors was previously damaged and had visible outward signs of that damage and decay which would have been noticeable at the ground level by inspectors pre fire, without extraordinary effort.” Per California Public Resource Code 4293, trees weakened by decay or disease, which may contact or fall on a line “shall be felled, cut, or trimmed so as to remove such hazard.”
Cal Fire forwarded its investigative report to the Butte County District Attorney’s office.
Pacific Gas & Electric was sued by hundreds of individuals who suffered damages in the Dixie Fire. In September 2021, Singleton Schreiber McKenzie Scott filed two lawsuits against PG&E on behalf of over 200 victims, and Bret Cook and Potter, Handy, Parkinson & Benson followed with a lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 500 victims. The suits allege that PG&E failed to maintain vegetation around the power line, among other negligent acts.
“Although PG&E was on notice of a power outage near the Cresta Dam early that morning, the utility company did not consider the event urgent, failed to send a repairman to the scene for many hours, and failed to shut off power in the area,” according to the complaint filed by Cook et. al.
On April 11th, 2022, PG&E reached a $55 million settlement with six counties to avoid criminal prosecution for the Kincade and Dixie fires. PG&E did not admit to any wrongdoing, though it did agree to 5 years of oversight and to set up the Direct Payments for Community Recovery program in an effort to accelerate payments to hundreds of people who lost their homes in the fire. Prosecutors said the deal would result in a far larger payout than if they had sought criminal prosecution.
Two weeks after the fire, PG&E implemented Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS), also called Fast Trip Mitigation Protocol, which rapidly and automatically shuts off power when objects such as a tree or branch fall onto a line. In response to CAL Fire’s investigation, PG&E said it believed this would have prevented the Dixie Fire. The utility company also maintained that it had not acted negligently, citing the fact that the District Attorneys did not press charges.
On January 17th, 2023, PG&E reached a $24 million settlement with ten public entities for damages to roads, public and natural resources, lost revenue, and increased expenses. The entities included the five counties affected by the fire, the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District. Reimbursement of FEMA and Cal OES funds were also part of the settlement. PG&E did not admit liability in the settlement.
On August 1st, 2023, Singleton Schreiber filed a class action lawsuit against PG&E on behalf of Northern California residents impacted by airborne pollutants from the Dixie and Fly fires. The suit alleges “long-lasting impacts to the residents’ health and well-being,” and said the pollutants cause heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and a myriad of respiratory issues. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of people living in Plumas, Butte, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta, Sierra, Nevada, Yuba, Placer, and El Dorado counties at the time of the fires. According to the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) scale, levels reached 834 in Plumas County at one point. Readings below 100 are considered healthy.
On October 9th, 2023, the CPUC announced a proposal of a $45 million penalty for PG&E over the Dixie Fire. The shareholder-funded penalty would consist of a $2.5 million fine to the California General Fund, a $2.5 million payment to tribes, and $40 million for capital expenditures to transition records to electronic format. The proposed settlement will be decided on at a November 16th meeting.