The recent wildfires in Northern California left numerous people wondering how such widespread devastation could occur. One atmospheric scientist decided to look for answers in weather forecasts from early October.

What the atmospheric scientist from the University of Washington discovered was clear: Weather — particularly winds speeds — on Oct. 8 indicated the risk of firestorms. If power companies and municipalities in Northern California had been paying attention to wind conditions, they would have known to turn off the power grid.

Downed power lines start fires in high wind conditions

Scientists are still investigating the actual cause of the fires that swept across Northern California in October. However, one of the most important suspects relates to the sparks set off by downed power lines and downed electrical equipment caused by gusting winds in excess of 70 mph in early October.

According to the atmospheric sciences professor, “It was a wind event, a sudden onset and pretty sudden die-down.” He said that if authorities and power companies had deactivated power for nine hours during the windstorm, the wildfire catastrophe might not have happened.

The state of California rarely shuts down power

California boasts one of the world’s most wildfire-prone landscapes. The usual way that local authorities try to reduce the chances of wildfires is to reduce vegetation surrounding homes and to use fire-retardant materials in construction products. Only rarely does the state, cities or municipalities call for power grid shutdowns when wind conditions increase to dangerous levels.

However, many safety experts say that — in the wake of October’s storm damage — stronger steps may be required to prevent fires. Those steps include a halt on development plans in the state’s “wind corridors” where fires are common, burying electricity lines in rural regions, and preemptive power grid shutdowns.

Who’s liable when a power line caused a fire?

When a power line comes down and causes a destructive wildfire, it’s possible that the power company or the local municipality, county, city or state share liability regarding the destruction, injuries and death that result. If you or your family experienced the loss of property or life, or suffered injury relating to a California wildfire, you may want to investigate your legal rights and options to pursue financial compensation in court.