Electrical Injuries from Wildfires, Outages, and Power Surges
In recent years, California and much of the western United States have experienced a long-term, devastating drought that severely negatively impacts our cities, agricultural industry, and wildlands. For California, this has fed into a "perfect storm" of giant wildfires, frequently sparked by aging, poorly maintained electrical transmission systems. These same transmission system deficiencies have often resulted in widespread power outages -- both unintentional outages due to system failures as well as intentional power shutdowns by the electric utilities to keep their old, under-maintained, and often defective equipment from causing new wildfires during periods of especially hot, dry, and windy weather. These problems have substantially increased the likelihood of electrical injuries from wildfires, outages, and power surges. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help the victims and their families seek appropriate compensation for their losses when individuals are seriously injured or killed by these incidents.Electrical Injuries from Wildfires -- Recent History
The year 2000 was the driest period for the southwestern United States in at least 1,200 years. This has turned the region into a tinderbox where failing public utility electrical equipment sparks more significant, damaging, and deadly wildfires. A list of just a few of the larger fires in recent years that are known or strongly suspected to have been caused by electrical transmission equipment includes:
- Camp Fire 2018, 150,000+ acres burned, 18,000+ structures damaged or destroyed, 85 deaths, and at least 17 severe injuries among firefighters and civilians.
- Dixie Fire 2021, nearly a million acres burned, approximately 1,300 buildings destroyed, 1 death, and at least 3 injuries.
- Tubbs Fire 2017 (downed lines in a private electrical system), 36,807 acres, 5,600+ structures destroyed, 22 deaths.
- Atlas Fire 2017, 51,000+ acres, 781 buildings destroyed, 6 deaths.
- Cascade Fire 2017, nearly 10,000 acres burned, 260+ structures burned, and 4 deaths.
- San Diego Wildfires 2007, 200,000+ acres burned, 1,141 houses destroyed, 2 deaths.
- Butte Fire 2015, 549 houses destroyed, 2 deaths.
With this long-term drought continuing and with public utilities barely scratching the surface of their long-deferred equipment maintenance backlog, it seems likely that these tragic events and associated power outages will only be repeated.
In these incidents, the injuries caused by failed public electric utility equipment are almost always fire-related – burns and smoke inhalation, for example – but some downed power line incidents can cause shock and electrocution injuries. Outages (whether accidental or intentional) and power surges can result in various injuries, typically depending upon what type of electrically-powered equipment is impacted. People dependent upon home medical equipment may be injured if the incidents result in damage or loss of power to that equipment. In contrast, other incidents may be as simple as traffic accidents with injuries resulting from traffic signal systems that have lost power.What Causes Electric Utility Wildfires and Outages?
Common public utility electrical equipment failures that cause wildfires and outages include:
- Downed, energized power lines -- When power lines with active current running through them fall to the ground, they can produce sparking and fires when they contact the ground, vegetation, transmission towers, or other materials in contact with the ground.
- Failing energized equipment -- Under-maintained or defective equipment can directly produce sparks that can fall onto combustible materials, igniting a fire.
- Contact of power lines with trees -- When adequate clearance isn't maintained between power lines and trees growing nearby, the lines and trees can contact, sparking a wildfire. Likewise, limbs, branches, or other parts of trees growing too close to power lines can detach from trees -- especially during windy conditions -- and blow onto or into the power equipment.
- Conductor contact -- If equipment damage or failure causes power lines to move into contact with one another or other parts of transmission towers, the contact can produce arcing, sparks, and hot pieces of metal that can ignite nearby flammable materials.
However, these are only the immediate causes of wildfires and outages -- the physical triggers for the events. Far too often, the actual causes are public utility corporate choices to maximize profits over safety by deferring maintenance to the transmission hardware itself and proper tree and vegetation clearance to remove sources of fuel and power line contact points from near the transmission lines.Legal Considerations for Electrical Injuries from Wildfires, Outages, and Power Surges
Electrical injury incidents, in general, tend to have complicated causations. Frequently, a thorough investigation of the electrical system failure that caused a wildfire, outage, or power surge may require looking at the design, manufacture, installation, and maintenance (or lack of maintenance) of many pieces of equipment over very long periods. The cause of the devastating Camp Fire appears to be a roughly century-old iron hook that broke and allowed an energized line to contact vegetation. The complex questions of equipment engineering and corporate practices can be time-consuming and expensive.
Beyond the challenges of proving causation, electrical injuries from failed utility company equipment also involve legal questions that may include public resource laws, public entity claims laws (where the electric utility is a government entity rather than a corporation), and complex regulatory systems such as the California Public Utilities Commission that sets additional regulations governing electric utilities. Additionally, when major utilities like PG&E end up in bankruptcy due to the civil and criminal penalties for their past failures, federal bankruptcy laws may complicate the successful resolution of new claims.
An experienced personal injury attorney will have the experience, skills, and resources to investigate, litigate, and resolve these complex claims.
View this video that describes how the devastating Camp Fire resulted in PG&E's entry into bankruptcy -- a process that has further complicated the resolution of injury claims and lawsuits against the company:Sacramento Electrical Injury Lawyers
Sadly, the combination of long-duration drought conditions in California with poorly maintained public utility electrical systems seems likely to continue the devastating wildfires and large-scale power outages we have experienced over the last several years. Even though these utilities claim that they are now addressing their maintenance backlogs, the sheer scale of their long-deferred maintenance appears to ensure that many years will pass before significant improvements are seen in their systems. If you or a loved one has experienced an injury in an incident, public utility-caused wildfires, power outages, or power surges, please call us for free, friendly advice at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 or reach out to us by using our online contact form.
Editor's Note: updated for accuracy and relevancy [cha 6.26.23] Photo by Kristian Norvik via Pixabay gm [cs 1147] cha