Pacific Gas and Electric was charged Friday with manslaughter and other crimes after its equipment sparked a Northern California wildfire last year that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes, prosecutors said.
It is the latest action against the nation’s largest utility, which pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a 2018 blaze ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid that nearly destroyed the town of Paradise and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
In a news conference, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against the company. She said in July that her office had determined that PG&E was “criminally liable” for last year’s Zogg Fire, which burned near the city of Redding.
“We have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is criminally liable for the ignition of the Zogg Fire and the deaths and destruction it caused,” she said.
PG&E CEO Patti Poppe disputes the claims, saying in a statement that while her "heart aches" over ongoing devastation caused by increasingly deadly wildfires, the utility "did not commit a crime."
"We’ve accepted CAL FIRE’s determination, reached earlier this year, that a tree contacted our electric line and started the Zogg Fire. We accept that conclusion," she said. "But we did not commit a crime."
Pushed by strong winds, the fire began on Sept. 27, 2020, and raged through the rugged Sierra Nevada and communities, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) of land.
In March, state investigators concluded that the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line. Shasta and Tehama counties have sued the utility alleging negligence, saying PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.
In her statement, Poppe said the tree that started the fire is one of over 8 million "within striking distance to our lines." Between 2018 and 2020, the utility removed more than 5,000 trees in the area near the Zogg Fire and, in 2021, PG&E will remove an additional 300,000 trees and trim 1 million trees statewide.
Last week, San Diego-based law firm Singleton Schreiber McKenzie Scott filed a pair of lawsuits against the utility on behalf of more than 200 victims of the ongoing Dixie Fire in Northern California. The lawsuits allege "negligence in failing to shut off power to the area where the fire sparked, even when they knew there were high-risk conditions," the firm said in a statement.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire, or Cal Fire, is currently investigating the cause of the Dixie Fire, now the second-largest in state history. A recent report by the California Public Utilities Commission showed that PG&E equipment might have sparked the blaze, which has consumed nearly 1 million acres since it started in July. In its initial findings, PG&E reported that an employee spotted a tree leaning against a conductor on a utility pole July 13, the same day the fire started. The employee also saw a fire burning at the base of the tree and reported it to officials.
PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after its aging equipment was blamed for a series of fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise that killed 85 people and destroyed 10,000 homes, and it faced hundreds of lawsuits.
Company officials have acknowledged that PG&E hasn’t lived up to expectations in the past but said changes in leadership and elsewhere ensure it’s on the right track and will do better. They have listed a wide range of improvements that include using more advanced technology to avoid setting wildfires and help detect them quicker.
PG&E also remains on criminal probation for a 2010 pipeline explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area city of San Bruno that killed eight people, giving a federal judge oversight of the company. The judge and California power regulators have rebuked PG&E for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with some wildfire victims. But it still faces both civil and criminal actions.
The Sonoma County district attorney’s office filed charges in April over a 2019 blaze that forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.
In the meantime, most of the roughly 70,000 victims who have filed claims for devastation caused by PG&E’s past misdeeds still are awaiting payment from a trust created during the bankruptcy. The trust, which is run independently of PG&E, is facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall because half of its funding came in company stock.