Video from Butte County Sheriff deputy Aaron Parmley’s body camera shows his scary escape from a Paradise, California, road engulfed in Camp Fire flames earlier this month.
The utility company operating in the heart of the region devastated by the deadly Camp Fire in California was named Wednesday as the target of a class-action lawsuit, which alleged Pacific Gas & Electric bears responsibility for the “unprecedented disaster.”
Attorneys representing several residents who lost everything in the tragedy said PG&E is to blame for the fire, which began Nov. 8 in Butte County. The lawsuit claims “unsafe electrical infrastructure” started the blaze.
“The fire was started by unsafe PG&E equipment . . . It becomes a tragedy that could have, and should have, been avoided had PG&E done their legal duty of safely operating and maintaining their power infrastructure,” said the complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court.
Cal Fire, the agency investigating the blaze, has not made a determination about its cause.
One of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Robert Eldridge, told USA TODAY he has post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience of having to flee from his house in the town of Paradise, which was wiped out by the quickly moving inferno.
Eldridge, 71, said that with the flames fast approaching, he jumped on his vehicle with nothing but the clothes on his back and his dog, a Maltese. He then found himself in standstill traffic on Oliver Road as residents scrambled to get out of town.
“I had embers from the pine trees falling on my windshield burning hot,” Eldridge said. “The traffic was gridlocked. It took two hours to go one mile. I thought I would be burned alive, because as I was sitting there all I could hear in the background was popcorn popping. And it wasn’t popcorn, it was propane tanks from everybody in the neighborhood. You could hear them, ‘Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.’
“The sky was totally black because of the smoke, and all you could see was a dime-sized hole through the black overcast, and that was the sun.’’
Eldridge, a retiree who has been staying at a Comfort Inn in Red Bluff — about an hour northwest of Paradise — said his house sat on a three-acre lot that also included two barns. He said drone footage showed the structures burnt down.
Though no relatives were living with him, Eldridge said tended to several wild animals, among them a herd of deer, a family of skunks and a family of foxes that lived on his property.
“Their fate is unknown,” he said. “To know they’ve been affected by this brings tears to my eyes.”
Eldridge calls himself “homeless” and a “burnout” because he can’t go back to his place, and won’t be allowed to return to see what’s left for another three weeks. His property was insured, but that does not lessen the ire he feels.
“I’m very angry,” he said. “I’m injured in my soul, and I’m having nightmares over the experience.”
Asked if he’s angry at PG&E, he responded, “If the shoe fits …’’
Another plaintiff said he feels “broken” by the utility company’s alleged negligence.
“After a difficult and terrifying evacuation, we found out our home had been completely destroyed by the fire,” said Kevin Burnett. “The stress, the loss, are almost more than we can bear, and to then learn PG&E’s equipment likely caused the fire, we just feel broken. I just lost thirty-five years of my life. Everything I worked for since I moved to California went up in smoke.”
The lawsuit follows another that was filed last month, which also alleges that PG&E was negligent. It claims that PG&E failed to properly maintain, repair and replace its equipment.
A PG&E statement at the time said that “It’s important to remember that the cause (of the “Camp Fire”) has yet to be determined.”
The North California fire killed 85 and destroyed close to 14,000 homes. Eleven people remained missing as of Wednesday. It took nearly 17 days to bring the fire under control and the town of Paradise, home to 27,000 residents, was destroyed.
In just two weeks, the Camp Fire destroyed more structures than the state’s other seven previous worst wildfires combined. It also killed nearly three times as many people as the Griffith Park Fire – a record that stood for 85 years.
The latest lawsuit said PG&E should be held accountable for failing to keep its equipment in good working order.
“PG&E has continued to cut corners and put profits over safety, and continued to operate dangerous equipment without adequate risk management controls in place,” the lawsuit alleged.