The Story Behind the 2017 Napa Wildfires – PG&E Whistleblowers Post
I spent last weekend in Napa Valley. From Santa Rosa to Calistoga, the only talk is of the fires. Tourism will return, the wine still flows but for thousands of Californians, their lives were permanently altered by the fires. What can we learn from these deadly fires? How do we prevent them from happening again? And can we hold someone accountable for the lives lost and dreams destroyed? The answers to some of these questions are held by PG&E whistleblowers (Pacific Gas & Electric).
The Tragedy Unfolds
During the weekend, I traveled up in the hills and watched as firefighters continued to knock down the last smoldering hotspots, talked to linemen and met with some folks directly affected by the tragedy.
On Saturday (October 21st) in the hills just outside Santa Rosa and Napa, the smoke was still visible and the smell everywhere. Dozens of firefighters from all over the country continued to knock down stubborn little fires. First responders still were going door to door sifting through destroyed homes looking for the bodies of the missing.
The death count from the two week fire storm stands at forty two but several people haven’t been heard from. Everyone hopes they simply aren’t answering their phones or maybe lost their phones to the flames. But as the days drag on, concerned family members and friends call rescuers who have the grim task of sifting through the ruble looking for charred remains. The fires were so hot that dental records are the only method of identifying those who are found.
I met Bob at the V.Sattui Winery in St. Helena. A seemingly happy guy, Bob is the manager of the winery’s wine tasting room. He laughs and jokes with customers but privately, he shared the terror of he and his wife fleeing their home as hurricane force winds pushed the fires rapidly to their home. Within minutes, his home was destroyed.
He, his wife and an elderly tenant that lived in a guest house made it out alive. Several of his neighbors did not. As he relives that vivid memory, the smile quickly fades. Everything that he worked so hard for is gone. He and his wife didn’t even have time to grab photo albums or family heirlooms.
On Sunday morning in Napa I met a couple who appeared to be in their 70’s. They are staying at the Napa Winery Inn. The lobby of the hotel has a sign thanking first responders. But for this couple, they don’t have much to be thankful for.
Fortunately, they had more time to evacuate and could load their aging Suburban with clothes and important papers. But while at the hotel, they learned their home was destroyed. They are still too numb to know what to do or where to go or even how to get help. To look at them is to look at despair and defeat.
On Monday, I spoke with several linemen in Calistoga. They looked like soldiers back from a long battle. Evidently, they have been working round the clock for days trying to restore power and replace hundreds of burned power poles and melted insulators and burned transformers.
One of the linemen remarked that this tragedy was largely preventable. That seems to be the mood of the local populace too. Careless smokers will toss lit cigarettes out windows, homeowners and campers will ignore burn bans and even mother nature can get in the act when lighting strikes dry tinder. But everyone suspects the Napa and Sonoma fires were caused by PG&E.
History of Major Fires in California
As I write this, the death toll from these fires stands at 42. 8,400 homes, businesses and other structures destroyed. 246,000 acres burned. That only 42 people died is a miracle.
California has a long history of wildfires and as urban populations push into the hills and global warming means more droughts, more tragic fires are likely to follow.
The state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, investigates every deadly blaze. According to their investigations, electrical lines cause just 8% of fires. The biggest causes are debris burning (14%), and lightning (11%). 23% are never determined.
The four major fires that burned earlier this month in the wine country area of California were the Tubbs, Atlas, Patrick and the Nuns fires. All started within a few minutes of one another. Early investigations are suggesting faulty PG&E electric transmission lines.
Investigators believe the Atlas fire began on Atlas Peak Road just outside Napa. A homeowner reported losing power at 9:30 pm on October 8th. The power came back on but shortly thereafter a deadly fire was bearing down on his home. The homeowners made it out alive but their 98 year old neighbors who lived across the street perished.
The fire may have been caused by wind knocking down wires or a tree falling on a wire.
The Tubbs fire near Calistoga was first reported at 9:45, also on October 8th. Investigators aren’t saying yet what might have sparked that blaze. Fueled by hurricane force winds, the Tubbs fire raced into nearby Santa Rosa and burned entire suburban neighborhoods.
The Nunns fire was reported at 10:00 pm. It would claim the life of an out-of-state fire fighter who rushed to California to aid in the firefighting efforts. Investigators again appear to be focused on downed power lines.
The final major fire, the Patrick fire, was the last of the four to be reported that night. Once again, investigators are focusing on downed power lines.
We checked meteorological records for October 8th. Heavy winds were reported throughout Sonoma and Napa Counties. Some say that local gusts reached hurricane force. The state’s public utility regulators require lines be built to withstand those winds.
Was wind a factor in the beginnings of each of these blazes? We will have to wait for Cal Fire’s final report but we suspect the answer is yes. Everyone agrees that the winds that night caused the fires to spread so rapidly. By the times the winds died down and fire fighters from around the world began pouring in, the fires were simply too big to contain. (We say all over the world as Australia sent a wildfire crew to help California firefighters.)
Even if wind was a factor, PG&E should have insured that their lines could withstand those winds and be clear of brush and tree limbs.
PG&E is no stranger to controversy. The company just got done settling claims related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline failure, a failure that caused a wall of fire “1000 feet tall” in a residential neighborhood.
Eight people died in that tragedy. The company paid $1.6 billion to settle claims with the California Public Utilities Commission. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted the company on criminal charges including obstruction of justice for lying to federal investigators. In January of this year, the company was fined $3 million.
The regulatory and criminal actions are in addition to an estimated 70 lawsuits filed against the company. PG&E was blasted when they tried to blame the dead victims and homeowners who lost their homes.
Two years ago, the Public Utility Commission was deeply critical of PG&E’s line maintenance operations in Sonoma County. Some of the problems included vegetation growing on poles or too close to overhead wires.
One California state senator is already calling for the breakup of the utility if Cal Fire determines it is responsible for the deadly blazes. Quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. Jerry Hill (D- San Mateo) said, “If we find that in this particular case — and we don’t know the cause yet — then frankly I don’t think PG&E should do business in California anymore. They’ve crossed the line too many times. They need to be dissolved in some way, split.”
The estimates of the damages from the most recent fires are difficult to estimate. Insurance companies can rebuild houses but a home is much more than four walls and a roof. It is dreams, memories, cherished photos… And valuing the 42 people who lost their lives? No one can estimate that.
PG&E is promising to spend $450 million to trim vegetation. It is needed and appreciated but too late. And can they really do a good job of making sure the vegetation is off the lines? Pacific Gas & Electric relies on their own crews and contractors to trim vegetation. The company, however, is responsible for inspecting the lines and making sure they are safe. With tens of thousands of miles of line and 4.2 million poles, the company has just 18 people to handle those inspections. That alone is negligence in our opinion.
So what is the company saying? PG&E CEO Geisha Williams is certainly making the right public statements. The company’s website says, “We have been part of these communities for more than 100 years. These people are our friends and neighbors, and we are devastated by what they are going through. We will work shoulder to shoulder with them to restore and rebuild what’s been lost, for as long as it takes.”
Is the company really doing everything it can? In our opinion, no. Actions speak louder than words. And PG&E doesn’t seem to be heeding the words of its own CEO. The company’s website says, “If your home was [d]estroyed in the wildfires, you will be billed only through October 7, 2017, the day before wildfires started.”
That statement shows a callousness that even we find hard to believe. If this is the response of the company, we fully expect that they will again be accused of lying to investigators and will again try to blame home owners for dying in what should be the safety of their own homes.
Just two days before the fires began, PG&E opposed new safety measures to prevent future fires. Media company Quartz says, “According to a PG&E statement in July, parts of the [safety] initiative would ‘add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.’ Now, after years of opposing the new safety rules, PG&E’s lines are prime suspects in this month’s wildfires.”
Call for PG&E Whistleblowers
We believe that folks within an organization often have the best information about why things go wrong and would should have been done. We want to know what the company knew about wildfire dangers and prevention efforts. In this case, that means PG&E employees and consultants.
Most law firms seek clients. The client calls the law firm, the lawyers investigate and if they believe their client has a case, they file a lawsuit if the claim can’t be amicable resolved. Already, one lawsuit has been filed and we suspect that over the coming years, thousands more lawsuits will be filed.
Unfortunately, the lawyers fighting these battles are fighting well funded defense lawyers and a giant public utility well skilled at the legal game of “hide and seek.” Despite PG&E’s ham fisted attempts to blame homeowners and victims in the San Bruno gas explosion, everyone knew that a major pipeline failed and PG&E was to blame. In the wine country fires, we expect Pacific Gas & Electric will blame Mother Nature, God, homeowners and even firefighters. Proving responsibility will be more difficult.
That’s where we come in.
MahanyLaw is a different type of law firm. We are not seeking clients who lost loved ones or their homes or their businesses. We have excellent California law firm partners who can bring those claims. We are looking for PG&E whistleblowers.
PG&E whistleblowers? Yes! We investigate cases from the inside out. We are not looking to be the first lawyers to file lawsuits. And certainly, not lawyers you will see on TV looking for fire victims.
We want people who know the story behind the story. People who know where the smoking gun emails are and know whose server to subpoena and image. In short, we are looking for PG&E whistleblowers.
From helping taxpayers get back $16.6 billion from Bank of America to fighting big banks and financial service companies like Freedom Mortgage and Ocwen, we have a unique method of investigating cases and bringing justice to victims. This time we hope to get to the truth of whether the deadly Napa and Sonoma wildfires could have been prevented. To do that, we need PG&E whistleblowers. They have the answers.
Will you help us? PG&E whistleblowers can remain behind the scenes if necessary. They may be able to serve as non-testifying experts witnesses. Talk to us. Your information will remain confidential unless we have your permission and even then, it will only be used in ways you authorize.
As I write this tonight, I think about the older couple at the Napa Winery Inn. Right now, they have little hope. We want to offer those folks hope and get them back on their feet and make sure that other families do not have to suffer again.
Not every wildfire is preventable. We agree with the linemen we spoke with, however. This one was preventable. Whether laziness or a big utility putting people before profits, much more could have been done to stop this disaster from happening.
If nothing else, the company should be ashamed of itself for blocking safety efforts just days before the fire and now for offering to not charge homeowners for a full month of service if their house burned down. A company’s culture isn’t determined by the lineman and front line workers. It is decided by the C-suiters and lobbyists. It’s time for real accountability.
Interested in becoming a whistleblower? Your community and we could certainly use several PG&E whistleblowers. Give me a call at (414) 704-6731 (direct), online or by email at Your community, conscience and neighbors will appreciate it even if you remain behind the scenes.
Important updates to this story can be found here!
Disclaimer – We are seeking information and not seeking victims of the Atlas, Nunns, Patrick or Tubbs wildfires. Any legal services performed in California is always done with local counsel.
NOTE: The San Francisco Chronicle has done a fabulous job of covering the fires. Their images of the fire are like no others.