Chimney Sweep

Lawsuit alleges utility PacifiCorp sparked lethal McKinney Fireplace

Victims of the McKinney Fire that destroyed homes and killed four people in Siskiyou County have sued the Oregon-based utility company providing power in far Northern California, claiming PacifiCorp powerlines sparked the fire.

While fire investigators with the United States Forest Service remain tight-lipped about what caused the blaze, the lawsuit argues power equipment is to blame. The fire ignited July 29 at a time of dangerous fire weather in a rural area by McKinney Creek near Klamath River, an unincorporated community on Highway 96 in Siskiyou County.

Tom Gauntt, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp, declined to answer questions about the McKinney Fire and said the lawsuit prevented the company from discussing the matter.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Pacific Power in California, filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission six days after the fire started, alerting regulators that its equipment was in the area of ​​a fire. The company did not report any problems with its equipment to state regulators. Drew Hanson, another spokesman for PacifiCorp, told the Chronicle on Aug. 3 that “we are not aware of any equipment being collected for an investigation related to the McKinney Fire.”

Attorney Gerald Singleton said his firm’s investigator reported that overhead power lines were the only human infrastructure in the remote forested area where the fire started — no roads, structures or campsites. His San Diego-based firm, Singleton Schreiber, is representing about 25 property owners with losses from the fire.

“There’s nothing anyone has seen that would lead us to believe that the McKinney Fire started with anything other than power lines,” Singleton said.

A 911 caller reported the first flames of the McKinney Fire just before 2:15 pm on July 29. Emergency dispatch audio from some of the first fire units on scene describe the early flames. “About a quarter acre …. right now putting water on it … it is underneath the power line right-of-way,” a firefighter reported over the radio at about 2:30 pm

Singleton said his firm’s investigator was informed that the Forest Service collected power equipment from the origin site as evidence. He said they will request access to inspect the equipment in the course of civil litigation proceedings.

Adrienne Freeman, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, said the agency’s investigators were still determining how the fire started and were working with assistance from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office. Freeman declined to say whether any power equipment had been collected as potential evidence.

The lawsuit alleges PacifiCorp was negligent in its maintenance, operation and inspection of its power lines and names another 2020 wildfire in California that spurred a lawsuit blaming PacifiCorp for the destruction: the Slater Fire that burned 157,229 acres and killed two people in the Klamath National Forest . The cause of that fire is still under investigation. PacifiCorp did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Slater Fire.

The McKinney Fire has burned 60,392 acres and is 95% contained. The blaze destroyed at least 196 structures. Those killed include longtime US Forest Service fire lookout Kathy Shoopman.

Julie Johnson (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @juliejohnson

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