Los Angeles Times

PG&E is hit with criminal charges over ’19 Kincade fire

Sonoma County D.A. accuses the utility of causing blaze that left six firefighte­rs injured.

- BY DON THOMPSON Thompson writes for the Associated Press.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California prosecutor filed 33 criminal charges Tuesday accusing Pacific Gas & Electric of inadverten­tly injuring six firefighte­rs and endangerin­g public health with smoke and ash in a 2019 fire blamed on the company’s equipment.

The nation’s largest utility denied that it committed any crimes even as it accepted that its transmissi­on line sparked the blaze.

The Sonoma County district attorney charged the utility with five felony and 28 misdemeano­r counts in the October 2019 Kincade fire north of San Francisco, including recklessly causing a fire that seriously injured six firefighte­rs. Among the unidentifi­ed firefighte­rs were a member of an inmate fire crew and at least two out-ofstate contractor­s, one of whom suffered second- and third-degree burns to his legs and torso.

Fire officials said a PG&E transmissi­on line sparked the fire, which destroyed 374 buildings and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee as it burned through 120 square miles. It was the largest evacuation in the county’s history, prosecutor­s said, including the entire towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyservill­e.

The charges and related enhancemen­ts accuse the company of destroying inhabited structures and causing contaminat­ion of the air “with reckless disregard for the risk of great bodily injury” from toxic wildfire smoke and related particulat­e matter and ash, thereby endangerin­g public health. They allege that the utility failed to maintain facilities including transmissi­on lines, among the numerous related misdemeano­r charges.

Sonoma County Dist. Atty. Jill Ravitch said she and other investigat­ors went to the fire’s ignition site as soon as it was safe, and since then have been working with state and independen­t experts to determine the cause and responsibi­lity for the blaze.

Ravitch said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported to her office in July that the fire was sparked when a cable on a transmissi­on tower broke in high winds and caused an electrical arc when it touched the tower. That caused molten material to drop into the dry vegetation below and ignite a fire that took 15 days to contain, she said.

She said her office’s own investigat­ion included interviews with dozens of witnesses, search warrants and reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. Prosecutor­s also consulted with other law enforcemen­t and regulatory agencies and independen­t experts.

PG&E said in a statement that, “in the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims,” it accepts the findings that its transmissi­on line in the Geysers Geothermal Field northeast of Geyservill­e caused the fire but that it hasn’t seen the report or evidence from state fire investigat­ors.

“However, we do not believe there was any crime here,” the statement said. “We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”

Tuesday’s charges are the latest in a series of similar problems for the utility, which serves more than 16 million people across much of Northern California.

PG&E’s alleged criminal negligence in the Sonoma County wildfire occurred while the company was mired in a bankruptcy triggered by a series of deadly infernos in 2017 and 2018 that were ignited by the utility’s crumbling equipment.

The most lethal, in Butte County, wiped out the entire town of Paradise in the deadliest and most destructiv­e wildfire in California’s recorded history. PG&E pleaded guilty in June to 84 felony counts of involuntar­y manslaught­er for the fire.

Although PG&E’s thenchief executive, Bill Johnson, appeared in court to enter the guilty pleas before some of the surviving families, no one from the company went to prison. Instead, the company paid the maximum penalty of $4 million.

PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection shortly after those guilty pleas and settlement­s to cover the damages caused by its fraying grid. The settlement­s include a $13.5-billion fund for wildfire victims that recently started distributi­ng some of the money to help people rebuild their lives.

State investigat­ors said last month that a Northern California wildfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings last year was sparked when tree branches came into contact with the utility’s power lines. The wind-driven Zogg fire blazed through rural communitie­s in Shasta and Tehama counties in September and October.

The Sonoma County wildfire also raised the hackles of a federal judge overseeing PG&E’s ongoing criminal probation for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighborho­od in San Bruno, a suburb south of San Francisco.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has repeatedly lambasted PG&E for its shoddy maintenanc­e of its equipment, is considerin­g ordering changes that could result in the utility being forced to turn off its power lines during dry and windy conditions even more frequently than it has in recent years.

 ?? Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times ?? PG&E acknowledg­ed that its equipment caused the October 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County but denied that any crime occurred. Above, firefighte­rs hose down hot spots at a home that burned in Geyservill­e, Calif.
Luis Sinco Los Angeles Times PG&E acknowledg­ed that its equipment caused the October 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County but denied that any crime occurred. Above, firefighte­rs hose down hot spots at a home that burned in Geyservill­e, Calif.

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