Wildfire Victims Sue Utility Company as Search for Missing People Intensifies

November 14, 2018 Updated: November 15, 2018

Victims of the deadliest wildfire in California history sued the state’s largest public utility on Nov. 13 as search teams combed through ash and embers in what’s left of the town of Paradise.

What came to be known as the “Camp Fire” now has a death toll of 48 as of the night of Nov. 13, and has expanded to 135,000 acres. Firefighting crews took advantage of rising humidity and diminished winds to contain more than a third of the blaze.

A specialized National Guard contingent of 100 military police joined working search crews to look for remains in Paradise, a town of 27,000 people that was all but incinerated just hours after the fire ignited a week ago. The guardsmen joined recovery teams staffed with coroners, forensic anthropologists, and cadaver dogs.

A group of three law firms representing victims of the Camp Fire filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), alleging negligence by the utility company and blaming the blaze on poor maintenance.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire. PG&E and Southern California Edison both reported to regulators they experienced problems with equipment in areas around the time the blazes were first reported.

“It’s important to remember that the cause (of the “Camp Fire”) has yet to be determined,” PG&E said in a statement. “Right now, our primary focus is on the communities, supporting first responders and getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access, so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers.”

The lawsuit alleges that prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E began warning customers it might shut off power because of the high risk of wildfires.

“Despite its own recognition of these impending hazardous conditions, on the day of the Camp Fire’s ignition, PG&E ultimately made the decision not to proceed with its plans for a power shutoff,” the lawsuit stated.

More than 200 people have been reported missing. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea suggested that the actual number may be lower, since many people may have fallen out of touch after evacuation on short notice.

Cal Fire firefighters comb through a house destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., Nov. 13, 2018. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

President Donald Trump has declared the area a disaster, making federal emergency assistance more readily available.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and California Gov. Jerry Brown visited Paradise on Nov. 14.

“This is so devastating. I really don’t have the words to describe it,” said Brown, according to Chico Enterprise-Record. “It looks like a war zone.”

Zinke told reporters he toured California four times this year in the aftermath of wildfires, commenting each time that the fire was the worst he has ever seen.

“Now, here we are today, and this is the worst fire I’ve seen,” Zinke said.

Josh Campbell of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told KRCR TV on Nov. 13 that in at least one instance, strong wind gusts in a canyon near the city of Chico, not far from Paradise, were actually helping by slowing the spread of the fire.

“This gives us the opportunity to construct our lines, so we can be ready for the fire and put it out,” he said.

Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Canyon west of Paradise, told KRCR TV that her father, Gordon Dise, 66, was among those who had died. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed on her father when he went back to gather belongings.

Dise said she couldn’t flee in her car because the tires had melted. To survive, she hid overnight in a neighbor’s pond with her dogs.

“It (the fire) was so fast,” Dise said. “I didn’t expect it to move so fast.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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