Salem area wineries sue Pacific Power over Labor Day fires

Willamette Valley Vineyards has filed an $8.1 million lawsuit against Pacific Power and its parent company PacifiCorp claiming that the electric company’s failure to shut off power to prevent further ignition during the 2020 Labor Day fires led to substantial losses and smoke damage at vineyards in the area.

Willamette Valley Vineyards, located just south of Salem in Turner, claim in the lawsuit that despite forecasts of heavy winds over 50 mph and a red-flag warning, Pacific Power did not preemptively shut off power to prevent its equipment from sparking more fires.

The vineyard filed the lawsuit on July 24 in Marion County Circuit Court.

The suit claims that three nearby utilities; Portland General Electric, Consumer Power and Pacific Gas & Electric; turned off their power in high-risk areas throughout the region to mitigate fires.

“PacifiCorp refused to turn off its power for one reason, and one reason only: PacifiCorp wanted to sell electricity and avoid costs associated with shutting off power, thereby maximizing money to upstream its profits to its out of state parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy,” the lawsuit states. “PacifiCorp chose profits over safety.”

The company disputed the lawsuit’s allegations in a statement spokesman Simon Gutierrez sent to Salem Reporter.

“Pacific Power’s ability to provide such essential utility services is being threatened by spurious lawsuits like these and excessive wildfire damages pursued by out of state plaintiff attorneys who have a substantial financial stake in these outcomes. Pacific Power has resolved and will continue to resolve reasonable claims,” the statement said.

Willamette Valley Vineyards grows and buys grapes from vineyards throughout Marion and Yamhill County. The winery’s suit claims Pacific Power’s equipment sparked 20 fires in Santiam, Echo Mountain, Archie Creek Complex, 242 and South Obenchain on Sept. 7 and 8.

The vineyard claims the smoke tainted the flavor of that year’s grapes throughout the region, and that the damages for their business exceeded $2.7 million for ruined product and lost sales.

“A pretty good size of the expense is the products we couldn’t make because the fruit had to be used in a different way,” such as using them for lower quality and cheaper wines, Willamette Valley Vineyards owner Jim Bernau told Salem Reporter.

“And then, of course, we had to destroy some wine that was already put in a bottle that didn’t show smoke until after it was bottled and after it aged,” he said.

The claims about Pacific Power’s role in the fire are similar to those in a suit filed in 2020 by survivors of the Labor Day fires, including those who lost homes in the fire which tore through the Santiam Canyon.

In June, a Multnomah County jury found that the company caused a substantial amount of damage with its actions, and that it owed $73 million in damages to 17 plaintiffs who lost homes and faced other damages.

“There’s little question that their equipment started the fires, as the (Multnomah County) verdict shows,” Robert Julian, a lawyer representing the winery, told Salem Reporter.

“It’s just sad that PacificCorp is not doing the right thing and coming forward and settling these claims rather than just dragging out the litigation and adding insult to injury,” he said.

Pacific Power confirmed with Salem Reporter Tuesday that it still plans to appeal the June decision. It has not filed an appeal as of Tuesday. The case is now in a second phase of determining damages owed to others who had property damaged during the fires.

PacifiCorp’s statement said the company is a leader in wildfire mitigation, with a plan that “includes in-house emergency management, meteorology and data science teams and features the installation of over 300 weather stations, grid hardening, fire-risk modeling software and an enhanced vegetation management program.”

Gutierrez said that when there is higher wildfire risk, the company may place system equipment on a more sensitive setting so it can be turned off faster if there is an issue like birds or branches coming into contact with it.

PacifiCorp has not listed an attorney as of Aug. 1. and has not yet filed a response to the winery suit.

Julian said he’s getting calls from winemakers throughout the region, and expects to file “a lot” of lawsuits. He’s also representing Lingua Franca Winery in Salem, and Samuel Robert Winery in Amity who filed a similar lawsuit on Tuesday. Elk Cove Vineyards in Yamhill County filed a lawsuit on July 14.

Willamette Valley Vineyards’ case alleges that PacifiCorp failed to maintain and remove vegetation that could fall into wires during heavy winds, and that the company was aware the system was prone to fail and start fires during the weather event.

The lawsuit also alleges that PacifiCorp destroyed physical evidence, texts and voicemails relating to its equipment failures.

The lawsuit refers to a deposition from Doug Grafe, Oregon’s wildfire programs director. He testified that Gov. Kate Brown’s Chief of Staff organized a phone call with PacifiCorp and two other utilities at 8 p.m. on September 7, where officials made it clear that shutting down the power would lower risk for additional fires.

“I would have loved to hear: We’re evaluating that, we’re watching that, we’re tracking that, we’re watching that, there’s also other areas we’re concerned.’ But we didn’t hear that level of sophistication in the conversation,” Grafe said in the deposition.

Related coverage:

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.