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Couple sues PG&E for negligence, says power lines caused wildfire

Enlarge/ SANTA ROSA, CA -OCTOBER 14: The ruins of houses des..

Enlarge/ SANTA ROSA, CA -OCTOBER 14: The ruins of houses destroyed by the Tubbs Fire are seen near Fountaingrove Parkway on October 14, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. At least 40 people are confirmed dead with hundreds still missing. Officials expect the death toll to rise and now estimate that 5,700 structures have been destroyed.David McNew/Getty Images

A couple who lost its Santa Rosa home in the devastating October Tubbs Fire has sued the local utility for negligence, saying that untrimmed tree branches caught fire when they came into contact with power lines and other equipment.

The California Department of Forestry hasn’t officially ruled on what caused the October fires that consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in northern California and killed dozens of people, but officials have asked Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to preserve records for subsequent investigations into the causes of the fires.

Last week, the Bay Area paper Mercury News reported that the night the fires started, “emergency dispatchers in Sonoma County received multiple calls of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding.” The night had been a particularly windy one, and PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman told the paper that “The historic wind event that swept across PG&E service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75mph in some cases.”

The couple filing this week's lawsuit, Wayne and Jennifer Harvell, are the first to sue in connection with the so-called Wine Country Fires. Of those fires, the Tubbs fire was the largest, destroying 3,000 homes in the city of Santa Rosa and killing at least 22 people, according to Courthouse News. The Harvells were among the people whose homes were destroyed by the fire.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court, claims that California’s unusually rainy winter in 2016 caused an explosion of growth of foliage in the Santa Rosa region in the spring. Then, northern California experienced an unusually hot summer, causing all that greenery to become tinder. The Harvells allege that PG&E knew this and neglected to properly prune and maintain the area around its power lines.

“On information and belief, beginning on or about October 8, 2017… power lines and/or other electrical equipment came in contact with vegetation and caused the Wine Country Fires,” the lawsuit claims. The Harvells are seeking damages and are not looking to form a class action.

Speaking to the Mercury News on Wednesday, Jennifer Harvell said, “We lost everything. We lost our lives. So did everyone we know in our neighborhood, and, basically, we want to find out the truth about this.”

In a statement sent to Ars, PG&E wrote: “As the fires continue to burn, we’re focused on supporting firefighting efforts to contain the fires and protect life and property. Once it is safe to do so, restoring power and gas service safely and as quickly as possible will be our priority. We aren’t going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency.”

On Wednesday, the company reported that 99 percent of electrical service and 80 percent of gas service in the affected areas have been restored to people able to receive it.

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