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Jury finds PacifiCorp owes more than $71 million for causing 2020 Oregon wildfires

The Two Four Two Fire burning in the Fremont-Winema National Forest on Monday night, Sept. 8, 2020
Fremont-Winema National Forest
The Two Four Two Fire burning in the Fremont-Winema National Forest on Monday night, Sept. 8, 2020

Oregon’s second-largest electrical utility, PacifiCorp, played a significant role in the Labor Day wildfires that ravaged parts of the state in 2020, according to a Multnomah County jury.

Jurors returned a nearly unanimous verdict Monday that found the utility caused a substantial amount of damage related to fires in the Santiam Canyon, as well as the South Obenchain and 242 fires in Southern Oregon and the Echo Mountain Complex Fire on the Oregon Coast.

After less than two days of deliberations, jurors found the company owes more than $71 million to the 17 plaintiffs in the case for losses related to the fires and emotional suffering. The jury also found that a broader class of potentially thousands of people can bring claims against PacifiCorp for the fires in a future court proceeding.

Since late April, jurors have listened to a wide ranging case from attorneys representing 17 plaintiffs whose properties burned in the four fires. Throughout their case, plaintiffs’ lawyers said leaders at PacifiCorp, which is owned by the multinational holding company Berkshire Hathaway, should have known from weather reports and other warnings that a major windstorm and extremely dry conditions had the potential to start uncontrollable wildfires on Labor Day 2020. The plaintiffs’ case relied on 911 calls, PacifiCorp’s internal documents, wildfire experts and emotional testimony from wildfire victims to make the case that the utility’s decision to leave power lines energized directly led to fires.

During their defense, PacifiCorp’s lawyers said the company had to balance fire risks with the dangers of turning off the power in broad areas of the state. PacifiCorp attorneys relied on expert testimony and the utility’s employees to make the case the company is an Oregon leader in wildfire mitigation. In the case of the Santiam Canyon fires, the company also pointed to another nearby wildfire that had started weeks before Labor Day — the Beachie Creek Fire — as the primary cause of new fire starts that weekend.

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Ryan Haas has been with Oregon Public Broadcasting since 2013. His work has won numerous awards, including two National Magazine Award nominations for the podcast "Bundyville." Prior to working at OPB, Haas worked at newspapers in Illinois, Florida, Oregon and the Caribbean.