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PacifiCorp agrees to $299 million settlement for Southern Oregon wildfire

Hazard trees marked for removal along Oregon Route 138 near Glide where roadside trees burned in the Archie Creek Fire.
Tony Andersen
Hazard trees marked for removal along Oregon Route 138 near Glide where roadside trees burned in the Archie Creek Fire.

PacifiCorp, the parent company of the Oregon electric utility Pacific Power, will pay out $299 million to settle lawsuits related to a 2020 wildfire in Southern Oregon that destroyed around 170 homes.

Tuesday’s settlement, first reported by Bloomberg, resolves years of legal wrangling over the Archie Creek Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres along the North Umpqua River near Glide, Oregon.

Lawsuits brought against Pacific Power claimed that the utility ignored significant warning signs that a windstorm over Labor Day weekend in 2020 posed a major fire risk. Dry conditions that summer had left many of Oregon’s forests at extreme danger of burning, and powerful east winds that year fueled the state’s most devastating wildfire season on record. The lawsuits also claimed that by not turning off power to its equipment, Pacific Power helped start or grow the Archie Creek wildfire.

In a statement, the company said it intends to pay the settlement to more than 460 people impacted by the wildfire as a way to resolve all “reasonable claims for actual damages.”

“The 2020 wildfires were undeniably tragic, and PacifiCorp is pleased to resolve this matter,” the company wrote.

Mikal Watts, an attorney for the plaintiffs with the Texas-based law firm Watts Guerra, praised the company for reaching a deal without a trial.

“I want to congratulate the new CEO and the General Counsel of PacifiCorp for stepping up and doing the right thing by their rate payors who lost their homes during the Labor Day 2020 fires,” Watts said in a written statement. “[Tuesday’s] settlement is the result of one thing — good lawyers and good corporate leadership.”

Though the deal ends a notable chapter in PacifiCorp’s legal defense of its actions in 2020, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company still faces several more wildfire-related court challenges.

Several businesses, including timber companies and wine growers, have also alleged they were harmed by Pacific Power’s actions in 2020. Many other Oregonians are also awaiting their day in court for personal damages related to wildfires across Pacific Power’s Oregon territory that year.

In June, a Multnomah County jury found PacifiCorp negligent in its operations and directly responsible for damages to 17 property owners across the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon and the Oregon Coast. Total costs in that case so far have reached $90 million, though PacifiCorp has said it intends to appeal that ruling. During that trial, the company argued that climate change was a prime driver of the Labor Day wildfires, not its equipment.

In addition to that payout, jurors found the company is potentially liable for damages to thousands more Oregonians who signed on to a class action lawsuit against the company.

PacifiCorp said in its most recent statement that it plans to continue challenging that class action lawsuit. Trials with groups of the class-action plaintiffs are scheduled to take place in January, February and April.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Ryan Haas