News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Pacific Power CEO defends inaction

The President and CEO of Pacific Power defended his company’s decision to not de-energize power lines during deadly wildfires in 2020 in a civil trial against parent company PacifiCorp.

The video deposition of CEO Stefan Bird was played May 16 in the trial of James et al vs. PacifiCorp in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Plaintiffs rested their case Tuesday. The trial then shifted to testimony in support of the defense.

 PacifiCorp is prepared to argue climate change and forest management policy had more to do with the fires than its equipment.

Seventeen named plaintiffs represent a class of more than 5,000 survivors of the Santiam, Obenchain, 242 and Echo Mountain Complex fires that started Sept. 7, 2020. They claim PacifiCorp negligently failed to maintain its equipment and recklessly failed to de-energize lines during high heat and wind conditions, claims the company denies.

The Santiam Fire alone killed five people, destroyed 1,500 structures and burned more than 400,000 acres. Plaintiffs are seeking $2.2 billion in damages.

In the video deposition, recorded May 13, Bird said Pacific Power has spent years building a wildfire preparedness plan, doing so ahead of other power companies and beyond what is required by law. Despite this planning, he said severe fire weather forecasts in 2020 did not meet the company’s threshold for power safety shutoffs, neither did warnings from state regulators.

One of the focal points of the trial has been a Sept. 7, 2020, phone call when state wildfire and energy regulators, and the governor’s office, urged local power companies to de-energize. 

Bird was not on the call, but was briefed by Pacific Power’s representative and during his deposition minimized the state’s concerns.

“There were essentially no actionable items that came out of that discussion that were important for me to take away,” said Bird.

Representatives of Portland General Electric and Consumers Power were also on the call, and these companies did de-energize their lines.

When asked how Pacific Power was gathering information during the fires, Bird said the company received a “tremendous” amount of realtime data from “a number of sources” through a fully-staffed emergency operations center. He denied plaintiff counsel’s assertion that Pacific Power had no access to frontline reports of the fires, nor a plan in place to collect such information.

Bird said, even with the information coming through its operations center as the fires raged, the company still did not believe thresholds had been met to de-energize its equipment. When asked to describe specific shutoff thresholds, Bird said he did not have enough expertise or information to adequately answer the question.

Bird was asked to rate his employees’ level of wildfire preparedness and said they “did the best they could with the information they had and the tools they had at that point in time.” 

Bird acknowledged the fires were “a very big deal” and said Pacific Power employees live and work in affected communities and the company’s goal is to “serve our communities and help them thrive.” He also said their obligation to customers includes providing power “Twenty-four seven, three-sixty-five.”

Defense testimony is scheduled to last through June 7, followed by one day for plaintiff rebuttal witnesses. The jury is expected to be handed the case June 9, and if PacifiCorp is found liable a second trial phase is scheduled for June 15 and 16 to determine individual damages for specific plaintiffs.

Access to court proceedings was provided through Courtroom View Network (cvn.com).

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the number of class members.

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