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State leaders testify on power shutoffs in Pacific Power wildfire lawsuit

Former Oregon government leaders testified they tried to convince power companies to turn off power before wildfires sparked — but were power shutoffs the answer?

PORTLAND, Ore. — Key state government officials testified Wednesday in a trial that will determine whether Pacific Power can be held liable for alleged negligence leading up to Labor Day wildfires in 2020.

A group of 17 plaintiffs are seeking $1.6 billion in the landmark trial, which is expected to last into June. Some of the plaintiffs claim Pacific Power lines and electrical equipment sparked fires that destroyed their homes.

Opening arguments in the case began Tuesday, as attorneys from both sides made their cases for whether Pacific Power had a responsibility to shut down its power lines.

As testimony got underway on Wednesday, government officials said they tried to convince utility companies to de-energize power lines before some of the major wildfires started.

Nik Blosser, then-chief of staff for Oregon Governor Kate Brown, said he would never forget the conversation he had with power companies, including Pacific Power, on Labor Day 2020.

“That feeling of regret ... we had that call and we had a chance and then a million acres burned," Blosser testified. "This whole thing is a tragedy, and I think we had a chance to prevent it and were not successful."

Wednesday’s testimony focused on a conversation between power company representatives, Blosser and Doug Grafe  — Oregon’s former chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry, who said that the Santiam Canyon area was at great risk for wildfires.

"Yes, power shutoffs would’ve prevented future fires across the state," Grafe testified.

Blosser said he was discouraged that power companies like Pacific Power weren’t more willing to cut the lights after discussing the increased warnings.

Attorneys for Pacific Power said power shutoffs were unheard of in Oregon at the time. They also asked Blosser and Grafe if they're aware of the serious risks associated with turning off electricity for communities in wildfire danger zones.

"I imagine that’s a complex decision, given need for reliable services and electricity," Grafe said.

Blosser admitted he never explicitly asked power companies to de-energize their lines because he believed he didn’t have that authority.

"We could not explicitly order them to shut the power off, so we had to figure out how to do everything but that to create the same outcome," he said.

Beyond power shutoffs, the Multnomah County jury will decide whether four of the Labor Day fires were started by Pacific Power lines or other factors, even though state and federal investigations are ongoing.

The trial has been bifurcated, with the first 6 or 7 weeks dedicated to determining responsibility, followed by a second trial to determine damages or compensation if Pacific Power is found to be at all liable for any of the four wildfires cited in the lawsuit — ranging from the Santiam Canyon to the Lincoln City area and down into southern Oregon.

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