File photo of smoke from South Obenchain Fire in 2020

Witnesses testify in wildfire lawsuit against Pacific Power

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — In a landmark case concerning Oregon’s destructive 2020 wildfires and whether utility company Pacific Power carries any responsibility, plaintiffs and witnesses are sharing their experiences and, often, their stories of destruction.

“[The firefighter] said ‘stop what you’re doing and look and it’s something I’ll never forget,” said Richard Jensen, fighting back tears. “There were flames about 20 feet tall and with the wind they were coming very, very fast.”

In Multnomah County Circuit Court on Friday, people like Jensen testified about their memories from the Labor Day wildfires in 2020.

“Through my Marine Corps career and my career working in a prison, I’ve seen some things,” Jensen said. “Nothing has affected me like this did.”

A group of 17 plaintiffs are suing Pacific Power, seeking $1.6 billion in a landmark case that’s expected to last into June. The plaintiffs claim the company’s power lines sparked fires that destroyed their homes.

On Friday, witnesses testified that they saw electrical equipment start fires in the Santiam Canyon and other areas.

“Wind blew a limb onto a tree taking out a power line and subsequently causing a transformer to explode,” said Nathan Steele, a cattle truck driver.

Christian Bigness, another one of the plaintiff’s witnesses, said he remembers forcing his neighbor Penny to leave her home for her own safety — and he regrets he didn’t think about what she would be leaving behind.

“Penny is the last person in her family, she lost everything she owned,” Bigness said. “She lost everything her family ever owned. She doesn’t even have a picture of her parents, no family heirlooms, all her jewelry, she lost everything.”

Defense attorneys for Pacific Power asked the witnesses about how close they were to other wildfires, implying that the ongoing Beachie Creek fire or other wildfires could’ve played a role.

Jensen said his wife and their two dogs evacuated first, and he later found his wife on the side of the road.

“I had to pull up behind her and tell her everything was gone,” he said.

About a month later, the Jensens were allowed to return home to see what was left.

“We were able to sift through those ashes and everything we could find fit in a sandwich bag, everything we owned,” Jensen said. “As my wife said, even with a sandwich in it.”

In court last week, Oregon state officials said they tried to convince power companies to shut off the power before some of these major fires started.

RELATED: State leaders testify on power shutoffs in Pacific Power wildfire lawsuit

Pacific Power lawyers said that would’ve been a risky decision to make and was uncommon at the time.

This trial is expected to last into June— and Pacific Power still has to present its arguments after the plaintiffs wrap up their witnesses.

The case is additionally complicated because state and federal investigations into the wildfires are still ongoing.

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