Sonoma County officials said Tuesday that they will sue PG&E over the October wildfires, becoming the first government entity to take on the utility giant over its alleged role in the historic infernos.
The county is seeking in its planned lawsuit tens of millions of dollars in damages to clear debris, rebuild infrastructure and develop safety measures to prevent future disasters.
The move came about a month after the Board of Supervisors hired a group of private attorneys to represent them at a hearing to consolidate more than 100 similar suits from burned-out residents under a single San Francisco judge.
Supervisors met in closed session Monday and voted 5-0 to authorize California Fire Lawyers to sue Pacific Gas & Electric Co., claiming it is responsible for blazes that scorched more than 137 square miles in Sonoma County, where 24 people died and 5,130 homes were destroyed.
The suit is expected to be filed before the next court hearing in late February. Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties are expected to join, according to Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein. Across the region, the fires claimed 40 lives and nearly 6,200 homes.
"Unfortunately, we live in a world where oftentimes negotiations don't begin until lawsuits begin," Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said Tuesday. "At the same time, you have to protect your rights."
A PG&E spokeswoman said she knew of the board's decision but stressed Cal Fire has not completed an investigation into the fires' cause. Ken Pimlott, the agency's director, said that last week determination, at least, could be months away.
Public records show PG&E has notified state regulators about damaged power poles and downed lines in areas near the origins of the wildfires. The state Public Utilities Commission is conducting its own inquiry into the fires.
"We're aware of the decision by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors but it does not change our focus on doing everything we can to help Sonoma County rebuild and recover," utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.
With the planned lawsuit, PG&E, the dominant utility across Northern California, now faces a widening legal battle over its alleged connection with the fires. Pretrial proceedings for the lawsuits brought by displaced residents are being overseen by a court in San Francisco.
Legal claims by local governments in such large disasters are not new. San Bruno sued PG&E after the deadly 2010 pipeline explosion and Calaveras County sued after the massive 2015 Butte fire, which state investigators blamed on the utility.
Goldstein, the Sonoma County counsel, said supervisors will be asked to enter a contract with the fire legal group, including Texas-based Baron & Budd and two firms from San Diego -- Singleton and Dixon Diab & Chambers. The contract calls for the group to receive a net 18 percent of damages awarded to the county, Goldstein said.
The group has conducted its own investigation into the cause and determined PG&E power lines or equipment played a substantial role, he said.
"We believe based on an investigation attorneys put together that PG&E was a significant cause of it," Goldstein said.
Now, the county will develop a damage estimate that could be in the $9 million to $25 million range, he said.
The lawsuit will seek money for debris cleanup that was not covered by insurance or the federal government as well as damage to infrastructure such as parks, Goldstein said.
Also, it will push to ensure PG&E adopts safety measures such as burying new power lines underground or creating power shut-off systems that could be activated in the event of another emergency, he said.
In December, the county said it was facing a $21 million budget shortfall as a result of fire damage and costs. The shortfall included a $10.7 million decline in revenue because of lost property taxes from destroyed homes, and another $10 million spent by the county on staff overtime and supplies.
"We're seeking to make sure the taxpayers don't bear the brunt of the losses caused by these fires," Goldstein said.
Despite the incomplete state investigations, county supervisors felt it was time to move forward. The court has acted swiftly to consolidate cases and set hearings, signaling it does not wish to see litigation languish. Officials said it was important to be part of the process at an early stage.
"You either choose to be moving with them or they start stepping away from you," Gore said.
Across Northern California, the October infernos burned 245,000 acres in six counties, killed 44 people and caused more than $9 billion in damage claims, amounting to the costliest wildfires in U.S. history.