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PacifiCorp to pay $250 million in timber company settlement for 2020 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.

For the second time this month, the utility provider PacifiCorp will pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to end a lawsuit over its alleged role in the devastating Oregon wildfires in 2020.

In a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday, PacifiCorp announced it has reached a $250 million settlement with 10 timber companies to resolve a lawsuit they brought against the utility related to the Archie Creek Complex Fire in Southern Oregon.

On Dec. 5, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company dished out $299 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Southern Oregon residents who lost their homes and property in the same fire, bringing PacifiCorp’s payouts this month to more than half a billion dollars.

The timber lawsuit alleged PacifiCorp’s employees, working at the Oregon utility Pacific Power, ignored warnings from the National Weather Service on Labor Day weekend in 2020 and continued to operate its electrical equipment rather than powering down. The suit also claimed the company failed to trim hazard trees and other vegetation that could have sparked power lines during the high winds that weekend.

“The 2020 wildfires were undeniably tragic, and PacifiCorp is pleased to resolve this matter on behalf of our impacted customers and communities,” the company said in an issued statement, adding that the threat of wildfires is larger than any single industry and there need to be “holistic solutions” to preventing catastrophic fires.

The Texas-based law firm Watts Guerra represented the timber companies, as well as the individual property owners who settled with PacifiCorp in early December.

“I am proud to have recovered fair and full damages for Oregon’s timber industry who lost tens of thousands of acres of valuable timberlands in the Labor Day 2020 fires,” attorney Mikal Watts said in a statement Monday.

As with the residential lawsuit settlement, Watts praised the leadership at PacifiCorp and Pacific Power for reaching a deal rather than taking the cases to trial.

PacifiCorp’s approach to lawsuits stemming from the Labor Day wildfires has varied, and many legal battles remain.

Over the spring, the company spent months trying to convince jurors its equipment was not responsible for devastating wildfires in Western Oregon. The company failed to sway those jurors and ended up being billed for about $90 million in damages to 17 plaintiffs. That trial also left the door open for untold millions more in payouts as related class action cases will proceed next year. PacifiCorp has vowed to appeal the jury’s decision to find them culpable in those fires.

Pacific Power is also not finished with several lawsuits brought by Watts’ firm. Attorneys are seeking damages from PacifiCorp for its potential role in the 2020 Slater Fire along the Oregon border with California. Wine growers in the Willamette Valley have also claimed that Pacific Power should compensate them for smoke damage to their crops in 2020.

More recently, Watts Guerra took on a lawsuit against PacifiCorp for its role in the 2022 McKinney Fire, which also burned near the Oregon-California border and allegedly started underneath a powerline.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Ryan Haas
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