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Northern California wildfires: Santa Rosa residents sue PG&E over blaze

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Suit alleges utility company neglected to clear brush near power lines and encouraged fires

Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage Through California Wine Country Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A Santa Rosa couple is suing PG&E over the still ongoing Northern California wildfires, alleging that the utility failed to properly maintain power lines in the region and manage nearby brush and tree growth, literally sparking a fire hazard.

The plaintiffs, Jennifer and Wayne Harvell, who reside in northern Santa Rosa near the town of Fulton, filed suit on Tuesday.

According to the complaint:

The wine country fires were started when electrical infrastructure owned, operated, and maintained by PG&E came into contact with vegetation owned and inspected by PG&E.

[...Defendants] were negligent in that they failed to properly maintain, repair, and inspect the subject lines, equipment, and adjacent vegetation and negligently failed to properly trim, prune, remove, and/or otherwise maintain vegetation near their electrical equipment so as to secure safety to the general public.

The couple are seeking damages for pain and suffering. Nobody at PG&E was immediately available for comment.

Note that, although Cal Fire is investigating PG&E equipment as one of the possible causes of the firestorm, the investigation has yet to pin the blame for the crisis on any one source, making the certitudes asserted in the lawsuit possibly premature.

Right now there is no concrete proof that the utility contributed to the fire hazard.

Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage Through California Wine Country Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that PG&E spent some $198 million on “vegetation management” in 2016, felling roughly 236,000 trees to keep them from growing too close to power lines.

Tree maintenance around electrical equipment is indeed a critical fire-prevention measure. Cal Fire found PG&E at fault for a 2015 fire in Butte County that killed two people and destroyed nearly 1,000 structures.

According to the Cal Fire report:

Failing to identify the potential hazard of leaving weaker, inherently unstable trees on the edge of the stand, without conducting maintenance on them, ultimately led to the failure of the Gray pine which contacted the power line operated by PG&E and ignited a wildland fire.

The utility’s stock price plummeted last week in response to news about the fire investigation, “wiping out almost $6 billion of PG&E’s market value,” according to Bloomberg.

Conversely, share prices jumped on Tuesday after police arrested an arson suspect in Santa Rosa, even though Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano says that there is “no indication that he’s related to these fires at all” and that the suspect was being held on unrelated charges.

Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage California Wine Country Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images