PG&E and Engineers Blamed for 50-Acre Fire

     SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — Owners of a 150-acre property claim in court that crew members surveying a Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline caused a fire that scorched their luxuriant land into a “black moonscape.”
     Ivy and Daniel Underdahl and Polly Borg Curtis own 150 acres near Atascadero, Calif., according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
     They sued REY Engineering Inc. and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, claiming their precious property — once full of large trees, bushes, native vegetation and wildlife — was “burned beyond recognition.”
     A PG&E natural-gas pipeline runs through their property and the electric company has a 50-foot wide easement for the pipeline, according to the complaint.
     On Nov. 8, 2013, two crew members from the Folsom-based REY were sent to map the pipeline from Morro Bay to the Central Valley, a job that would require that they place GPS repeater sites along the easement, the Underdahls and Curtis say.
     The crew members arrived with a Polaris Ranger all-terrain vehicle. The manual for the ATV warns operators not to drive it on hills steeper than 15 degrees, to use caution when traveling through tall, dry grass, and to keep combustible materials away from the exhaust system, the complaint states.
     Daniel Underdahl says he also verbally warned the crew members not to use the ATV due to the high risk of fire.
     Underdahl claims he recommended the men walk instead. Grass was especially dry due to a prolonged drought in California, the complaint states, so even hiking trails were not accessible to ATVs.
     But crew members allegedly ignored the warnings and drove the ATV without shovels or fire-retardant materials and without radios that they could use to call for help in a mountainous area with no cellphone reception.
     “They drove the ATV up hills with inclines that were significantly more than 15 degrees and through highly vegetated terrain,” the 16-page complaint states.
     After driving toward the easement, one crew member got off the ATV and began walking, while another continued for a bit more before parking the ATV.
     As one of them was setting up surveying equipment, he smelled smoke and soon saw that the grass beneath the ATV was on fire, according to the lawsuit. He drove the ATV away from the scene, but by the time he was able to call 911 for help smoke could be seen miles away.
     The fire allegedly scorched 51 acres of land that the Underdahls and Curtis have owned for 45 years. The property includes their home, native oak trees, hiking trails and beautiful views, and it is where they raised children, grew orchards and watched sunsets, according to the complaint.
     They say the fire burned a third of their property beyond recognition, and piles of dirt and debris remain.
     “The plaintiffs’ view from their house that used to be so beautiful, is now of blackened hills,” the lawsuit states.
     The blaze took 15 fire engines, four air tankers, three bulldozers, five hand crews and two helicopters to contain. But it wouldn’t have happened, the property owners say, if the crew members had just listened to their warning.
     The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reportedly concluded that the fire had been caused by the overheated ATV.
     The Underdahls and Curtis say PG&E was negligent for not instructing REY on how to safely perform the pipeline survey and not warning the plaintiffs and other property owners about the risks associated with the survey work.
     “The PG&E defendants’ negligent acts… were a proximate cause of the fire which constituted a trespass upon the property and from which its effects continue to this day,” the complaint states.
     Spokespersons for both PG&E and REY could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
     The land owners seek $5 million for property damage plus punitive damages. They are represented by Linda Ward of Diehl & Rodewald in San Luis Obispo.

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