A utility company that touts its roots in the Gold Rush era in the Sierra Nevada foothills is being sued by more than 100 people, with legal actions including at least one wrongful death claim, in connection with the devastating Wine Country fires that destroyed more than 8,000 structures and killed more than 20 people in October.

As of Friday, at least 107 people had filed nine separate complaints alleging Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s poor maintenance of its high-voltage power lines caused the October fires in Sonoma County alone.

No official causes or final determination of causes for some of the deadliest fires in state history have been released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or PG&E.

The fires broke out overnight late Sunday Oct. 8, and suspicion fell on PG&E as the fires continued burning. On Oct. 10, the California Public Utilities Commission advised PG&E they have an obligation to preserve evidence with respect to the Northern California wildfires. On Oct. 10, CPUC staff followed up with a letter reminding the utility they are obligated to preserve factual and physical evidence related to the fires.

Physical evidence includes “all failed poles, conductors and associated equipment from each fire event,” Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division, said in the letter to PG&E. PG&E employees and contractors must also preserve all records, including emails, related to potential causes of the fires, vegetation management, maintenance, and/or tree-trimming.

Public affairs staff with Pacific Gas and Electric this week said the utility is still paying citation fines, settling claims and preparing for trials stemming from the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County. Citation fines against PG&E stemming from the Butte Fire include two totaling $8.3 million issued in April.

The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine contacted a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road in Amador County and caused ignition that started the fire, according to a CPUC investigation. The fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures: 549 homes, 368 outbuildings, and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures, and resulted in two civilian fatalities and one injury.

Both people who died were residents of Calaveras County who refused to evacuate the area as recommended by local authorities, according to the CPUC investigation. Coroner’s reports indicated the cause of death for both victims was consumption by fire: residential conflagration.

Asked for PG&E perspective this week, Ari Vanrenen of PG&E corporate communications responded by email.

“Regarding the Butte wildfire: We continue to extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and the communities that suffered losses as a result of the Butte Fire,” Vanrenen said Thursday.

While PG&E continues paying the CPUC citations related to the Butte Fire, the utility continues to work to settle claims resulting from the fire and to prepare for trials scheduled for later this year, Vanrenen said.

“Regarding the recent northern California wildfires: “Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers and communities we serve,” Vanrenen said. “Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires. We are aware that lawsuits have been filed. There has been no determination on the causes of the fires. We're focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is an investor-owned utility with publicly-traded stock, headquartered in the Pacific Gas & Electric Building in San Francisco. PG&E claims market capitalization exceeding $29 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Its share price fell more than 20 percent shortly after the Wine Country fires broke out in early October.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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