Helena Fire 2017

The burnt wreckage of a building sits along Highway 299 in Junction City in the September 2017 file photo.

Trinity Public Utilities District says it has reached a settlement regarding wildfire claims arising from the 2017 Helena fire that began Aug. 30, 2017, and roared through Junction City reducing homes to foundations and chimneys, displacing hundreds. The fire destroyed 72 homes. Years later, some are still struggling to get back to stability while others are finally in homes they can call their own.

According to a release from TPUD sent to the Journal Tuesday, Jan. 12, the action stems from claims that TPUD equipment was responsible for starting the fire.

“The case was settled on Dec. 17, 2020, for the entirety of Trinity PUD’s insurance limit of $10 million,” according to the TPUD release.

“This fully and finally settles all public agency and private property claims that resulted in government claims presented to the Trinity PUD following the Helena fire,” according to Paul Hauser, district general manager.

A public claim was filed by the U.S. Forest Service for timber and fire suppression costs.

“The USFS’s fire investigation concluded that the fire started due to a grey pine limb falling onto Trinity PUD’s power line just uphill from the Helena Cemetery,” the release stated. “This grey pine was located approximately 26 feet outside of Trinity PUD’s power line easement, on Bureau of Reclamation land.”

TPUD was originally served with about $138 million in claims that included $62 million in federal suppression costs, and over $70 million in private and insurance claims.

According to Hauser, large claims like this against power utilities are becoming more common in California under the concept of inverse condemnation. Under this theory of liability, utility companies can be held responsible for all wildfire damages if the utility’s infrastructure is involved in the start of a wildfire, even without evidence of wrongful action or negligence on the part of the utility.

TPUD hired legal firm Downey Brand, which conducted an investigation and found the fire did start in the vicinity of the cemetery, but downhill from the grey pine near a cemetery access road.

“The fire then burned up the hill and ultimately caused the grey pine to fail and drop a limb across Trinity PUD’s power line,” the TPUD release states. “To avoid a long and expensive lawsuit process, Trinity PUD voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement process with the claimants.”

TPUD says that because of the suit, and California’s liability standard, it’s unable to get wildfire liability coverage.

“Without a change to California’s strict liability standard, we will continue to see these financially devastating lawsuits that utility customers ultimately pay for,” Hauser said. “No other state has this standard and this financial exposure will be challenging to the District as it tries to build revenue to upgrade its substations and powerlines.”

“Trinity PUD is deeply sympathetic to everyone impacted by this fire. Wildfires have taken a huge toll on our county,” said Kelli Gant, TPUD board president. “We are extremely grateful for the volunteer and professional firefighters, law enforcement, and other emergency personnel, who worked alongside our linemen during this tragedy.” 

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