PG&E pleads guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in devastating Camp Fire

Dozens of people in Northern California were killed in the state's worst wildfire, which was set off by PG&E equipment in November 2018.
Employees of Pacific Gas & Electric work in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 14, 2018.
Employees of Pacific Gas & Electric work in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 14, 2018.Terray Sylvester / Reuters file

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By Phil Helsel

California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric pleaded guilty Tuesday to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for causing the deadly and massive Camp Fire, which tore through communities in the northern part of the state in 2018 in what is considered the worst wildfire in modern state history.

"Our equipment started that fire," PG&E Corp. CEO and President Bill Johnson said at a court hearing.

"I wish there was some way to take back what happened, or to take away the impact, the pain that these people have suffered," Johnson said. "But I know that can't be done."

Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems read the names of each victim as he went through each count of manslaughter.

The company also pleaded guilty to unlawfully causing a fire. The utility agreed to plead guilty in March.

At least 84 people died directly from the blaze that devastated the town of Paradise and destroyed large parts of Concow, Magalia and other areas of Butte County after it erupted on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018.

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history claimed more than 18,800 structures, including 13,696 single-family homes and 528 businesses.

Deems is expected to formally sentence PG&E on Thursday or Friday, though no one will be imprisoned for the company’s crimes.

PG&E has agreed to pay a maximum fine of $3.5 million in addition to $500,000 for the cost of the investigation. The company filed for bankruptcy in January 2019.

A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.Noah Berger / AP file

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said at a news conference that he hoped Tuesday's guilty pleas send a message to other companies in the United States.

"This was a historic moment, and hopefully a historic moment for corporate America — to know that prosecutors wherever will not allow them to get away with recklessly endangering the lives of the citizens that they serve," Ramsey said.

A PG&E high-tension tower was the origin of the blaze, Ramsey said, and he held up a badly worn hook as an example of neglect.

On the day of the fire, a hook broke and sent a power line onto the structure where there was electric arcing that sent sparks onto brush and grass below. Ramsey said when line fell and arced onto the structure, between 5,000 and more than 10,000 degrees of heat was generated. Molten metal was thrown onto ground amid a historic drought and 40 mph winds.

PG&E is approaching the end of a complicated bankruptcy case that it used to work out $25.5 billion in settlements to pay for the damages from the fire and others that torched wide swaths of Northern California and killed dozens of others in 2017, The Associated Press reported.

The bankruptcy deals include $13.5 billion for wildfire victims. A federal judge is expected to issue a final decision on PG&E’s plan by June 30.

Johnson, the CEO, said in court Tuesday said that the utility is improving its inspection procedures and is hardening its energy system. He was hired around six months after the Camp Fire and plans to step down once the bankruptcy is approved.

"PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire, and all it took from the region," Johnson said in court. "We remain deeply, deeply sorry for this event and the tragic consequences."

Some who lost loved ones in the fire are expected to give victim impact statements on Wednesday. Even some of those who survived had their health ruined by the fire, the district attorney said.

Ramsey, seeking to explain what he portrayed as a culture of negligence that included badly overlooking maintenance and training, said that in the investigation "it became clear that profit was a driving force."

Ramsey said he was satisfied with the outcome, that PG&E pleaded guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Are we satisfied with the punishment? No," he said. "But we're getting the punishment for a corporation that is the maximum in the law that California allows."

The Associated Press contributed.