As 2020 wildfire trial defense begins, PacifiCorp offers competing experts to jury
The defense follows several weeks of plaintiffs' attorneys alleging that PacifiCorp acted negligently by keeping its lines energized during the Labor Day fires.
On Labor Day 2020, as winds began to pick up after a hot and dry summer, then-Mill City fire chief Leland Ohrt dispatched to a home not far from his own where a tree branch fell on an electrical line, throwing sparks that ignited a brush fire.
After hosing down the blaze, Ohrt traveled a short drive to Schroeder Road, where another tree branch fell across power lines and continuously arced sparks into the dry tinder below. Because he couldn’t stop the sparking, Ohrt blasted the utility lines with water until they exploded and de-energized.
The two incidents began a frenzied 48 hours for Ohrt, who would later receive praise for his firefighting efforts to save parts of Mill City as the devastating wildfires leveled thousands of homes across the Santiam Canyon and the rest of Oregon.
Despite seeing Pacific Power’s utility lines start those fires, Ohrt took to the stand last week to defend the utility in a first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit trial against the power provider. Ohrt told a jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court that he immediately dismissed attorneys who sent him paperwork in the weeks after the fires seeking to contact fire victims.
“I threw all that paperwork away,” Ohrt said. “You could tell right off the bat they were going to go after Pacific Power for this.”
Ohrt’s testimony highlighted one key aspect of the defense Pacific Power’s corporate owners, PacifiCorp, expect to lay out in the coming weeks of the trial: Most of the wildfires in the Santiam Canyon ignited from embers of the Beachie Creek Fire – and not their power lines. Even in places where power lines did start fires, PacifiCorp’s attorneys contend that people fighting those fires quickly got them under control.
The defense follows several weeks of plaintiffs’ attorneys alleging that PacifiCorp acted negligently by keeping its lines energized during the Labor Day fires, despite ample warning from weather officials and state government about fire danger. The decision to keep the power on contributed to fires quickly spreading out of control, according to the plaintiffs.
But Ohrt, under questioning from PaficiCorp’s lawyers, pointed to another culprit: the U.S. Forest Service.
“Forest Service, the way they fight fire is … I don’t know what kind of terminology I can use for that. They don’t do a very good job,” said Ohrt, who has more than 45 years of experience with Mill City’s volunteer fire department, but does not have experience fighting wildfires.
Weeks before fire swept through the Santiam Canyon, a lightning strike started the Beachie Creek Fire more than a dozen miles northeast of Gates in the Opal Creek Wilderness. Forest Service officials said steep terrain made it challenging to get firefighters into those woods to put out the slowly growing fire.
According to Ohrt, letting the Beachie Creek Fire smolder directly allowed it to throw embers into the Santiam Canyon when winds rapidly rose on Labor Day.
“The U.S. Forest Service was supposed to be fighting that fire,” he said in his testimony.
Whether jurors in the case find PacifiCorp responsible for the wildfires in the Santiam Canyon will likely be influenced by which team of attorneys’ experts are more believable.
In the final days of the plaintiffs’ case against the utility, Oregon State University professor John Bailey testified that there was no way the Beachie Creek Fire could have thrown embers far enough before midnight on Labor Day 2020 to start the wildfires near the town of Gates.
Bailey, who teaches fire management and has been studying forestry since the 1980s, said he used topography data, recorded weather conditions and fuels analysis to estimate where the Beachie Creek fire could have thrown embers ahead of its front line to start new fires. He noted that strong east winds that night would have, at most, spotted fires north of Gates and other residential areas in the canyon.
PacifiCorp’s attorneys, by contrast, had atmospheric sciences professor Neil Lareau of the University of Nevada testify that the extreme weather conditions that night did throw flaming pieces of wood and debris miles ahead of the Beachie Creek fire.
Lareau explained to jurors how he used satellite data of the fire to determine when massive plumes of debris burst forth and cast embers thousands of feet high. He said those plumes matched up with on-the-ground reports of spot fires in the Santiam Canyon.
Bailey, by contrast, said embers thrown by fires can rarely travel more than a mile – a far shorter distance than needed to start the fires Lareau claimed originated with the Beachie Creek fire.
PacifiCorp’s efforts to persuade the jury that the Santiam Canyon fires started from the Beachie Creek fire are crucial to any judgment that may come out of the case, given that more than half the people in a class of plaintiffs are linked to those fires. The corporation will also need to show its decisions did not substantially contribute to fires in Southern Oregon and near the Oregon Coast if it wants to avoid paying out millions of dollars.
Beyond Lareau, PacifiCorp’s lawyers have also spoken extensively to company employees who explained the intricacies of vegetation management and how the company weighs fire dangers against risks to human life caused by power shut-offs. Highly technical arguments on fire behavior and other aspects of the fires will continue this week as the trial wends its path toward an anticipated jury decision in June.
So far, PacifiCorp’s attorneys have disputed the technical aspects of the fires that night and presented witnesses who countered plaintiffs’ witnesses on what they saw on the ground – OPB has previously reported on numerous 911 calls that night reporting electrical equipment starting fires. One thing the defense has not disputed was that Pacific Power opted to keep its lines energized throughout the fires.
While cross-examining Ohrt, the Mill City fire chief, plaintiffs’ attorney Nicholas Rosinia quickly returned to that point.
“At some point during the night of Sept. 7, 2020, you asked your dispatcher to notify PacifiCorp to shut off the power,” Rosinia asked. “Is that right?”
Ohrt said he had made the request because the downed power lines could have been dangerous to his team as they moved from home to home trying to save properties around Mill City.
“And the power that night ultimately wasn’t shut off. Is that right?” Rosinia followed up.
“No,” Ohrt said, shaking his head.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.