Lawsuit alleges PG&E contractor caused 51-acre fire
September 2, 2016
Two employees of a PG&E subcontractor caused a 51-acre fire that burned a hillside and multiple groves of large trees belonging to a North County family, according to a lawsuit filed against the utility and the contractor. [Tribune]
On Nov. 8, 2013, the workers allegedly started the fire by operating an ATV on the property near Torro Creek Road outside of Atascadero — which has a high fire risk — despite being warned not to do so. Cal Fire concluded in a report that the PG&E subcontractor, R.E.Y. Engineers, caused the fire.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Daniel and Ivy Underdahl filed the lawsuit against R.E.Y. Engineers and PG&E. The suit is seeking about $5 million in damages.
The Underdahl family has owned the 150-acre property on Torro Creek Road for 45 years. The family has used the land for breeding livestock and growing apple and walnut orchards, as well as pear, plum and peach trees.
PG&E has a 50-foot wide easement on the property because a natural gas pipeline that the utility owns transverses the land.
On the day of the fire, two R.E.Y. Engineers employees were placing GPS repeaters along the pipeline. The workers arrived at the property with a pickup truck and an ATV. They wanted to use the ATV to travel up to and along the easement due to the steep terrain and warm weather, the lawsuit states.
Due to fire risk, Daniel Underdahl said he met with the workers and told them to walk to an area where they could access the easement without the vehicle, according to the lawsuit. The suit also states the ATV operator’s manual says the exhaust system components can get very hot, and drivers should use caution when traveling through tall grass, especially dry grass.
As the workers headed to the easement, one got off the vehicle and walked, while the other continued driving. The driver allegedly smelled smoke and saw grass on fire underneath the ATV. The man allegedly tried to extinguish the blaze using the small amount of drinking water he had.
The fire quickly spread. The worker tried to call his co-worker, as well as 911, but he did not have cellphone service, nor a radio, the lawsuit states.
The R.E.Y. employee drove around the property searching for cellphone service. By the time he called 911, the fire had become massive and billowing smoke could be seen for miles, according to the lawsuit.
Cal Fire managed to respond quickly because the agency was planning on conducting a controlled burn on a nearby property that morning. Cal Fire used 15 engines, four air tankers, three bulldozers, five hand crews and two helicopters to stop the fire before it reached the Unnerdahls’ home.
A Cal Fire report concluded the blaze was caused by PG&E subcontractor R.E.Y. Engineers’ employees operating an all-terrain vehicle in a wildland environment without having appropriate firefighting tools, the lawsuit states.
What was once a beautiful view from the Underdahls’ house became blackened hills, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleges PG&E and the contractors were negligent in going to the property without proper gear and communication equipment. The Underdahls are seeking about $5 million in general and punitive damages, as well as reimbursement for legal fees.