© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Oregon officials wanted utilities to shut down power lines before 2020 wildfires, court documents show

A person surveys the damage to a neighborhood burned in the Santiam Fire near Gates, Ore., Sept. 9, 2020.
A person surveys the damage to a neighborhood burned in the Santiam Fire near Gates, Ore., Sept. 9, 2020.

State officials warned utilities about fire risks and encouraged them to shut down power lines before the 2020 Labor Day weekend wildfires, newly filed court documents show.

The role those power lines played in igniting fires has become a central question in multiple lawsuits over the 2020 wildfire season, when powerful east winds swept fire across more than a million acres in Oregon, killing nine people and burning thousands of homes.

The disclosure of a meeting between state officials and utilities, first reported by The Oregonian, comes from a deposition filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys in a class-action lawsuit against PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utility companies. Victims of the 2020 wildfires claim PacifiCorp failed to safely operate and maintain infrastructure, and failed to heed warnings about historically powerful winds.

The latest filing centers on a deposition from Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, that shows the state wanted several utilities to temporarily shut down power lines to limit the risk of starting a fire in hot, dry conditions and windstorms.

Grafe testified that on Sept 7., 2020, hours before the windstorms that turned that year into one of Oregon’s most destructive wildfire seasons, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff organized a conference call with representatives from several utilities, including PacifiCorp. In that call, according to the deposition, state officials believed they made it clear to the utilities that they could avoid potential fire ignitions by shutting down power lines.

It was atypical for the state to organize a call advising utilities to de-energize their power lines, according to Grafe’s testimony, and state leaders have no authority to order utilities to do so.

“It wasn’t my authority to direct; but I prepared, in that conversation, everybody to understand the gravity of the situation and advised that more fires will occur from utilities; with the wind there’s high potential for that to occur,” Grafe said in the deposition.

OPB has previously reported that 911 calls from the time indicated people living near Gates, Oregon, witnessed sparking power lines around the time the fires began. In March, attorneys for the fire victims disclosed texts between PacifiCorp employees in which they worried about the utility’s transmission lines potentially playing a part in starting the fires.

Attorneys and media representatives for PacifiCorp did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Previously, spokesperson for the utility have declined comment on the case, citing company policy regarding pending litigation.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking for a judge to sanction PacifiCorp over not previously disclosing the meeting in which state officials advised them to de-energize power lines.

“It defies imagination that this meeting occurred without any paper trail whatsoever,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote, “but Plaintiffs can find no document in PacifiCorp’s document productions relating to this meeting.”

The lawyers have previously alleged PacifiCorp willfully destroyed evidence that might show its involvement, and that the company has used delay tactics to prevent plaintiffs in the case from gathering key evidence.

PacifiCorp has previously paid out millions of dollars in settlements related to wildfires in Oregon – including inNovember over its alleged role in the 2020 Archie Creek Fire in Southern Oregon.

The trial in the class action suit is set to begin April 24.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.