The wrongful death suit, filed by Zach McLeod, accuses the company of failing to cut trees for fire safety and failing to switch off the power during the windstorm.
A Shasta County man whose wife and daughter died in the Zogg Fire filed a lawsuit Tuesday against PG&E, accusing the electric company of causing their deaths.
The wrongful death suit, filed by Zach McLeod, alleges that PG&E failed to properly cut trees to prevent them from hitting power lines and failed to switch off the power to the circuit at the place where the fire started. His wife, Alaina, 46, and their daughter Feyla, 8, died on Sept. 27 when flames overtook the pickup truck they were using to escape.
Under California laws and regulations, power companies have a duty to trim and cut trees so that they don’t strike uninsulated power lines and spark wildfires.
“Zach would like PG&E to be criminally prosecuted,” said Mark Potter, an attorney representing Zach McLeod. “PG&E needs to be held fully accountable for its terrible malfeasance.”
“We recognize the impact that the tragic loss of life and devastation of the Zogg Fire has had on this community,” company spokesperson Lynsey Paulo wrote in an email. “We remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area.”
THE FATEFUL DAY
On a breezy Sunday afternoon, eight-year-old Feyla McLeod and her mother Alaina suddenly found themselves running for their lives in a borrowed pickup truck.
Zach was using the family car to buy groceries down the hill in Redding. From the parking lot, he spotted the plume of smoke up near his house in the small, hilly community of Igo.
“When I saw the smoke, I was frantically calling as much as I could,” Zach McLeod told ABC10. “It was a busy signal. The phone lines were already down. I didn’t know whether they got out or not.”
But as the hours ticked by, Alaina never answered her phone.
Zach learned his landlord had let Alaina borrow a pickup truck. As day turned to night, the pickup truck never arrived.
“It’s not an easy road to drive in the best conditions,” Zach said. “They ended up off the side of the road.”
The truck had run off the road and got stuck on the wooded hillside. It burned in the fire, with Feyla and Alaina inside.
“I can’t imagine how scared they were. It’s hard to imagine how scared they were because I was not there to get them out of this,” Zach said.
As the families began to grieve, Cal Fire’s arson investigators got to work on the next road over from the McLeod house.
On Zogg Mine Road, they seized parts of a PG&E power line and sections of a nearby pine tree as evidence.
PG&E’S CRIMINAL HISTORY
The Pacific Gas and Electric Company is already a two-time felon, a “recalcitrant criminal” that “deserves to be in prison,” according to US District Court Judge William Alsup.
Corporations can’t go to prison, but just a few months before the Zogg Fire PG&E pleaded guilty to crimes punishable by 90 years behind bars: 84 felony counts of manslaughter and one more felony for illegally sparking the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.
PG&E paid the same maximum fine a person would face: $3.5 million.
Prosecutors in Butte County said they knew the penalty would be small, but they wanted the public to know PG&E committed crimes.
They also wanted to put PG&E on notice.
“By doing this, you can now be charged with murder,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said.
Shasta County prosecutors have said they’re investigating PG&E for possible criminal charges in this case, including homicide.
SHUTOFF DECISIONS UNDER SCRUTINY
The Zogg Fire calls into question the methods that PG&E uses to make life-and-death decisions about where to shut off power during windstorms.
PG&E admitted that the model it uses to decide where to shut off power “is not based on the extent to which vegetation had been cleared or trimmed” and “did not take into account the difficulty or ease with which residents would be able to evacuate on short notice in the event of a wildfire.”
In court documents, PG&E said its shutoff model is based on a grid of squares a little more than one mile wide. The square where the Zogg Fire started wasn’t included in its shutoffs on September 27.
We now know that despite the critical role that wind speed plays in these decisions, PG&E doesn’t measure the wind speed in every square.
PG&E’s nearest weather station to the Zogg Fire’s origin was 3.5 miles away, on flatter terrain, and about 600 feet lower in elevation.
PG&E has promised to install more than 1,000 new weather stations. The company owns more than 100,000 miles of power lines, much of which runs through fire country.
PG&E SAYS TREES WEREN’T CUT
As part of its responses to Alsup, PG&E turned in a photo from a 2019 inspection with a red arrow pointing to the gray pine tree suspected of falling on the line and sparking the fire.
“PG&E currently believes the Gray Pine of interest may have been identified for removal,” PG&E told the U.S. District Court. “But not removed.”
Judge Alsup has demanded to know whether PG&E’s subcontractors marked the tree with paint, indicating that it should be removed.
The company said its contractors did mark trees in this area as a result of the 2018 Carr Fire, which burned some of the same areas as the Zogg Fire.
PG&E said it “is continuing to investigate why” two trees that were identified for cutting were never cut, but noted that “resources were shifted” during that work because of the 2018 Camp Fire.
PROSECUTION DECISION COULD COME IN MONTHS
A decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against PG&E for the Zogg Fire could take months.
Cal Fire referred the case to Shasta County prosecutors but has yet to issue its final report on exactly how it believes the first flames sparked.
Meantime, the loved ones of the dead are preparing to go through a solemn holiday season.
“There is nothing anyone can do to bring them back. Nothing. No comfort is coming from this nightmare,” McLeod’s attorney Mark Potter said. “Zach McLeod’s driving passion is to do all he can to see that PG&E never does this to anyone else again.”
“All those little things that I don’t get to do with them anymore, it’s really hard,” Zach McLeod said of his daughter and wife. “We had our special moments and I’m just trying to hold on to that. But there are so many more special moments that we have been denied.”
“They shouldn’t have had to try and make it out of something like this.”