The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize suing the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric for its role in causing the devastating Butte Fire in September 2015.

“At this point no claim has been filed, as the board just authorized this action during a closed session discussion this morning,” Tim Lutz, the county’s administrative officer, said Tuesday afternoon. “We anticipate a filing late this week.”

A public information contractor based in San Francisco said the national law firm Baron & Budd and the California Fire Lawyers will initiate litigation against PG&E for Calaveras County.

“The county has made every effort to enter into good faith negotiations with PG&E regarding recovery of damages resulting from the Butte Fire,” Lutz said. “Ultimately, the process has evolved to such a point that filing was necessary in order to keep this process moving and ensure we are doing all we can to ensure recovery of taxpayer funds.”

Brandi Ehlers Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said people at PG&E are continuing to work to resolve claims of victims and communities that suffered losses from the Butte Fire. She said PG&E leadership recognize hardships the megablaze caused, and they are committed to helping people recover.

The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine contacted a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County and caused ignition that started the fire, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation determined.

The fire burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties, damaged 44 structures and resulted in two civilian fatalities and one injury. It was declared contained Oct. 1, 2015.

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.

A public information contractor for Calaveras County said the decision by the Board of Supervisors to sue PG&E “marks the next important step towards recovering ‘millions upon millions of taxpayer losses’ from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.”

County staff have been working with a team of national experts to determine the total amount of damage, destruction, costs and monetary losses Calaveras County suffered in the most expensive disaster in its 167-year history. They did not include a dollar total of estimated Butte Fire losses in their Tuesday announcement.

“Collecting numbers and supporting data in order to determine the amount of damages from a 70,000+ acre fire is a tremendous undertaking,” county staff said. “The county and its team has calculated the county’s damages, evaluated and has pursued various legal avenues to secure compensation from PG&E and actively participated in confidential settlement negotiations.”

The state Department of Insurance said in January 2016 the Butte Fire caused an estimated $300 million in insured losses in Calaveras and Amador counties. In addition, the Butte Fire destroyed $51 million in public infrastructure and resulted in $2.7 million in public property damage, a county spokesperson said.

PG&E filed an appeal this week to a Sacramento County Superior Court’s Aug. 10 ruling that the utility giant could face punitive damages in all claims related to the Butte Fire. The company’s quarterly filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission filed July 27 stated the company could lose at least $750 million from the Butte Fire.

County staff have continued to estimate the county has lost, and will continue to lose, tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, damaged infrastructure, fire suppression costs, government employee overtime, emergency response and recovery efforts, damage to natural resources and other losses.

“Since the county will forever be scarred and socially and economically damaged, the county has worked to secure fair compensation for its residents and seek reimbursement for the damage to Calaveras County and its local infrastructure from PG&E, which is responsible for this tragedy,” county staff said Tuesday.

Baron & Budd, P.C. is a national law firm. The California Fire Lawyers, who represent multiple law firms, have also been retained by the counties of Sonoma and Napa for claims related to the wine country fires in October 2017.

Gary Tofanelli, the board chairman, said the county, its residents and taxpayers have endured devastating losses.

“This legal action is an important step towards taxpayer protection and recovery, and towards helping our communities rebuild,” Tofanelli said.

Public affairs staff with PG&E said in November the utility was still paying citation fines, settling claims and preparing for trials stemming from the Butte Fire in Calaveras County. Citation fines against PG&E stemming from the Butte Fire include two totaling $8.3 million issued in April 2017.

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

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