The McKinney Fire ravaged areas of northern California near the Oregon border in the summer of 2022, resulting in four deaths and damage to more than 200 structures. Before firefighters could contain most of the blaze in mid-August, it burned close to 60,000 acres in the Klamath National Forest and destroyed most of the town of Klamath River.
If this fire impacted you because you or a loved one were injured or lost property, including a home, other structure, trees, or vehicles, you may be able to recover damages in a legal proceeding against the utility company PacifiCorp. PacifiCorp, the parent company of local utility Pacific Power, may have played a role in the start of the fire by failing to maintain or adequately repair utility lines in the impacted area.
Contact a California wildfire attorney to learn more about the McKinney Fire and your legal options related to your loss due to fire. An attorney can help answer your questions about whether you can sue PacifiCorp over the McKinney Fire.
How Did the McKinney Fire Start?
It was a scorching hot day on July 29 in northern California, and as temperatures neared 108 degrees, conditions were ripe for a fire to start. At around 2 p.m., volunteer firefighter Mike Story saw smoke and headed out on his 160-acre property in a fire vehicle. He discovered the start of a vegetation fire that was quickly threatening to explode.
“Well, this is not good,” Story said in a cell phone video reported by NBC Bay Area. “Last couple of minutes, the… fire is coming back towards us.”
Other firefighters joined Story in battling the blaze, but a storm packing 50 mph winds descended on the area and forced an evacuation.
The area near Story’s home where the fire started was directly under a “right of way” controlled by PacifiCorp. The area had recently been serviced after area residents lost power the day before the fire started. One theory that local media sources are reporting is that a tall pine tree may have fallen against a larger distribution line but that PacifiCorp employees restored power in the dark without adequately checking for damage.
PacifiCorp has continued to cooperate with the official investigation.
What Role Did PacifiCorp Play in Starting the Fire?
California regulators know that the power line that runs through the area of Siskiyou County where the McKinney Fire began is owned by PacifiCorp. Until an investigation has been completed, officials will be unable to accurately assess what impact PacifiCorp and Pacific Power equipment and utility lines may have had on starting the McKinney fire. Anecdotal evidence indicates that faulty equipment may have sparked the wildfire.
NBC Bay Area reporters uncovered dispatch recordings that indicate a faulty 12,000-volt Pacific Power distribution line may have caused the fire. Pacific Power, owned by PacifiCorp, had to restore power to nearly 300 customers in the area of that specific line just that morning. Some media sources report that a tree may have fallen on the line, knocking out power to residents, but employees restored the power without properly checking for damage to equipment.
Klamath River Volunteer Fire Company Chief Janet Jones said that she and other residents who lost power wonder whether the outage and the fire sparked several hours later could be connected.
“Could have something sat there for… hours, before it ignited?,” questioned Klamath River Volunteer Fire Company Chief Janet Jones in the NBC report. “I don’t know.” Jones, who also lost power as a resident, was one of the first responders to the fire.
Are California’s Utility Companies Responsible for Any Past Wildfires?
Other wildfires in California may have been caused by faulty utility company equipment or practices. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that the destructive Dixie Fire that tore through a section of northern California in summer 2021 that downed Pacific Gas & Electric transmission lines caused.
That finding came after PG&E’s electrical grid caused the 2018 Camp Fire, which stands as the most deadly in the state of California. The utility company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in that case and has pending civil and criminal cases from other fires.
California’s Public Utilities Commission reports that less than 10 percent of all wildfires in the state (https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/industries-and-topics/wildfires) are caused by utility company infrastructure or equipment but that these blazes are among the most damaging.
The Commission reports that many public utilities are incorporating Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) into their Wildlife Mitigation Plans; this means that under threatening conditions for fire, the companies may shut off the electrical grid to prevent the risk of starting a conflagration. Such a step indicates that utilities know their transmission lines can start deadly and destructive fires.
PacifiCorp and PG&E are separate utilities, but PacifiCorp has been sued for its role in fires in other states, including the devastating Beachie Creek Fire that burned more than 193,000 acres outside Salem, Ore., in 2021. The company, which operates the electrical grid in parts of northern California, and in Oregon and Washington, is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a holding company associated with wealthy investor Warren Buffet.
Have Other Lawsuits Over the McKinney Fire Been Filed?
Yes, lawsuits against PacifiCorp for their potential responsibility in starting the McKinney Fire have already been filed in California. Similar cases have suggested that utility companies should know that conditions make fire more likely and fail to take steps to maintain equipment so that fire does not start, and argue that utilities are negligent in their responsibilities.
Because the local NBC affiliate station suggested in its reporting that the McKinney Fire was started under a transmission line, many area residents may join in lawsuits against PacifiCorp. It is a good idea to assess your legal options at this time and determine whether filing or joining a lawsuit is right for you.
What Types of Damages Could I Recover in a Wildfire-Related Lawsuit?
There are several different types of damages you may be eligible for following the destruction from the McKinney Fire. They include:
This includes the loss of:
- Your home or outbuildings
- Your vehicle or equipment
- Trees or other plants and landscaping elements
- Personal property like computer equipment or electronics
Smoke damage or water damage from a sprinkler system or firefighting efforts may also qualify.
You may have been burned or fallen as you evacuated nearby flames. Perhaps you have physical injuries related to smoke inhalation or respiratory distress. Any physical injury resulting from a wildfire can be eligible for compensation that covers your medical expenses, ongoing care and/or recovery through therapy.
California law permits you to recover damages for emotional distress or psychological trauma that result from negligence. While these types of injuries may be more challenging to prove, a knowledgeable attorney with experience in these types of lawsuits can help you prepare your evidence and be fairly compensated.
For any damages you claim, you will need evidence like receipts, photos, and testimonies from professionals. Your attorney can help you collect and organize this evidence most effectively. You may also become aware of physical injuries after the fact; a lawyer can help you navigate the complexities of receiving medical care and proving it was related to what you experienced during the McKinney Fire.
Why Do I Need a Lawyer if the McKinney Fire Damaged My Property?
You may not think you need to file a lawsuit against PacifiCorp—instead, you will wait for the company to compensate you. However, hoping for just compensation from a public utility company and its insurers may not work out for you. Without expert legal assistance, you may be overlooked or not get the total amount you are entitled to for this negligent behavior.
Hiring a knowledgeable attorney can:
- Help ensure you get proper compensation for your losses
- Help you with important paperwork necessary to recover
- Mean you do not have to deal with PacifiCorp attorneys and insurance company investigators alone
You have enough to worry about just trying to restore what you have lost through fire, emotional distress, and evacuation. The right law firm can take a weight off your shoulders by dealing with the stresses of a lawsuit and maximizing the amount you recover. Hiring legal specialists to oversee your case is often the best option following a traumatic event like the aftermath of a wildfire.
Who Should You Contact to Know Your Legal Options After the McKinney Fire?
If you have been injured or your property was damaged in the McKinney Fire, you do not want to trust just any attorney to make your case in court.
In the coming weeks, you are likely to see many law offices talk about filing suits against PacifiCorp due to the utility’s negligence in the McKinney Fire. Trust attorneys with a good track record in northern California with wildfire lawsuits. Contact a California wildfire attorney near you today.