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Residents Of Gates, Ore., Sue Pacific Power Over 2020 Wildfires

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

One of the biggest wildfires in the West is in Oregon, a state that saw major fire destruction last year, too. In the town of Gates, there are new questions about how those fires started, and the residents have filed lawsuits blaming the utility Pacific Power. Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: The Labor Day fires wiped out half of the homes in the town of Gates. There were fierce winds that day, up to 75 mph. The story that first emerged was that the winds had driven the Beachie Creek wildfire east through the town, overwhelming firefighters. But over time, a different explanation emerged.

RALPH BLOEMERS: I knew that there was a lot of people in the community that had seen things, probably taken photos, taken videos.

PROFITA: Ralph Bloemers is an environmental attorney. He's not involved in litigation around the Labor Day fires, but he interviewed eyewitnesses and obtained recordings of 911 calls like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have a downed tree that took out power lines, and we have live lines on the ground, and we have a fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We have a live branch - came down and pulled our box out. We have live wires.

UNIDENTIFIED 911 OPERATOR: Now they're on fire?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They're sparking. Oh, my God. It's so bad out here.

PROFITA: While other utilities chose to shut off power ahead of the record-setting windstorm, Pacific Power did not. This all raised one central question for Bloemers.

BLOEMERS: Was there a wall of flame or a fire moving to the community on Labor Day, or were these local ignitions?

PROFITA: The 911 calls about downed power lines sparking fires begin around 7 p.m. At that time, NASA satellite heat maps show the Beachie Creek wildfire is still more than 10 miles east of town. Oregon Public Broadcasting identified 13 power line-related calls and confirmed three instances where evidence suggests power lines were directly responsible for sparking new fires. One of them was at the firefighting command center at the Gates School, which was set up to manage the Beachie Creek wildfire. The electrical fire forced that team to evacuate immediately, leaving the town of Gates more vulnerable to the fire that was blowing in from the east.

RON CARMICKLE: It's obvious that there was power line ignitions, many of them.

PROFITA: Gates Mayor Ron Carmickle lost his home in the fires. He's one of many residents who have joined lawsuits against Pacific Power.

CARMICKLE: I got involved with the lawsuit because I was upset. For lack of a better term, I was pissed that this even happened.

PROFITA: Carmickle and others say the company was negligent and should have shut off the power, knowing that the historic windstorm would blow trees into power lines and start fires.

ALLEN BERRETH: We really look at it as a tool of last resort.

PROFITA: Pacific Power Vice President Allen Berreth says because of pending litigation, he can't discuss whether his company considered shutting off power in the area last Labor Day. But he did say that de-energizing power lines can prevent firefighters from accessing water or communications in an emergency.

BERRETH: It is in the toolkit, but we do recognize that de-energizing a community creates additional issues that have to be balanced out against the risk we're trying to mitigate, which is the wildfire risk to the community.

PROFITA: Berreth says Pacific Power is now planning to spend about $300 million on wildfire prevention strategies. There's precedent for the litigation against Pacific Power. After the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., Pacific Gas and Electric faced a similar class-action lawsuit and agreed to a $13.5 billion settlement. In their lawsuits, Gates residents are seeking more than a billion dollars to cover their losses as they work to clear the rubble from last year's fires and rebuild their town.

For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Gates, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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