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Sonoma County Gazette
Accountability for the Fires

Who can be held Accountable for the October Fires?

Nov 21, 2017


By Brooks Cutter

As people return to evacuated areas and visit their homes, many are finding nothing more than ashes where once stood their family home filled with memories and treasured possessions. Sifting through the ashes turns up an occasional sturdy heirloom or piece of jewelry but little else. This is a devastating event for these families. Even worse, at least 42 people lost their lives in the fire, with many still missing. The grieving process takes many paths and there is no single way to deal with these losses. Eventually, everybody wants – and is entitled to – answers about why and how this happened.

That inquiry will focus on many factors including the weather and wind conditions, and vegetation growth. Those are natural events. But knowing that every year the wind eventually blows from the north and if we have a wet
winter there will be lots of growth, our state and local governments plan for these events and maintain perimeters and encourage private property owners to do the same.

People have died and many lives and properties have been destroyed. This is not open to question. Our Public Utilities Commission has put in place regulations that require utility companies to anticipate these conditions and maintain clear easements for their power lines, free of vegetation that could cause a fire.

Look at the San Bruno gas explosion on September 9, 2010 – caused by PG&E’s failure to safely operate, inspect, and maintain gas lines. Eight people killed, 35 houses destroyed and many more damaged. A $1.6 billion fine levied by the PUC. Did this cause PG&E to put safety ahead of profit? Apparently not. The Butte Fire raged out of control starting September 9, 2015, because PG&E failed to maintain a clear easement for power lines that started the fire when a tree fell into the lines. Two people were killed, 549 homes were destroyed and 70,868 acres burned. The PUC issued a $8.3 million fine. Two years later we have the Sonoma fires – the most catastrophic fires in California history.

While the CalFire investigation is not complete, we do know that beginning at 9:22 PM on Sunday evening October 8, fire crews were sent to 10 different locations responding to reports of sparking wires and exploding transformers. This was all PG&E equipment and PG&E’s responsibility to maintain and clear the vegetation around it.

Some people are criticizing lawyers offering representation and those retaining lawyers and filing claims. Those are not fair criticisms. We have a civil justice system that aims to uncover the truth and fairly compensate people who are harmed by negligent or intentional conduct. So people should seek answers and representation as they seek to grieve and recover and move forward with their lives. PG&E will certainly, as it always has, hire multiple very large law firms to defend the claims. Juries (and the PUC) will weigh the evidence and make decisions.

A bedrock principle of our system of justice is that claims are tested and weighed by members of the community. We should embrace that system and hope it works here to bring some justice in the form of fair compensation to those who have lost so much.

Brooks Cutter is the founding partner of Cutter Law P.C. a law firm representing people in litigation against insurance companies and corporations with offices in Santa Rosa, Oakland, and Sacramento. For more information please go to


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