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Lawsuit: Electrical equipment sparked deadly California fire

California Wildfire Lawsuits
Posted at 5:35 PM, Aug 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-23 20:35:51-04

KLAMATH RIVER, Calif. (AP) — The daughter of a 76-year-old man killed last month when California's deadliest wildfire so far this year swept through a remote town has sued a public utility, alleging its electrical equipment sparked the blaze.

The lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of Theresa Cogan claims the McKinney Fire started when PacifiCorp's "utility infrastructure contacted, or caused sparks to contact, vegetation surrounding the equipment" on July 29 in Siskyou County near the Oregon border.

State fire officials haven't yet determined the cause of the blaze, which has killed four people, destroyed 185 structures and scorched nearly 94 square miles (243 square km) of forest. The fire, the largest in California this year, was 95% contained Tuesday.

Five days after the fire started, PacifiCorp filed paperwork with the California Public Utilities Commission indicating there was an event related to its electrical equipment at about the time flames broke out. The company made the filing “out of an abundance of caution,” according to CPUC records.

PacifiCorp declined to comment on Tuesday. “Our company policy is not to discuss issues under litigation,” spokesperson Tom Gauntt said.

Theresa Cogan's father, John Cogan, died in the fire, along with his neighbors Kathleen Shoopman, 73, Charles Kays, 79, and Judith Kays, 82.

DNA and dental analysis were used to identify the four Klamath River residents, the Siskyou County Sheriff’s Office said last week.

Authorities had said two bodies were found inside a charred vehicle in the driveway of a home and the other two at separate residences.

California Wildfire Lawsuits
FILE - A chimney stands at a home destroyed by the McKinney Fire on Aug. 2, 2022, in Klamath National Forest, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

The lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court demands a trial and unspecified damages.

“The McKinney Fire was avoidable had PacifiCorp complied with the standard of care in inspecting, repairing, and maintaining its electrical equipment, trimming away vegetation within the electrical equipment's surrounding environment as required by law,” the court filing said.

Last week, a group of residents and business owners in the remote region filed a separate but similar lawsuit against PacificCorp, also blaming the utility's equipment for sparking the fire.

Equipment owned by another California utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, was blamed for causing a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed more than 120 people and destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings. The damage led to lawsuits and caused PG&E to file for bankruptcy in 2019.

The McKinney Fire began in the Klamath National Forest and exploded in size when a thunderstorm created powerful winds. It reduced much of Klamath River, a scenic community of about 200 people, to ash.

California Wildfire Lawsuits
FILE - A firetruck drives along California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in Klamath National Forest, Calif., on July 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Scientists have said climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Across the American West, a 22-year megadrought deepened so much in 2021 that the region is now in the driest spell in at least 1,200 years.