San Francisco Chronicle
PG&E hit by charges over 2019 wildfire
Sonoma County D.A. files 5 felonies against utility
Sonoma County’s district attorney has filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed 374 buildings and burned about 78,000 acres in the wooded hills of Wine Country.
PG&E was charged Tuesday with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors for its role in causing the most severe wildfire of 2019, forcing evacuation orders for all of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville. Six firefighters were injured battling the blaze, and 174 homes were incinerated.
The alleged crimes that PG&E committed include recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures, recklessly causing a fire to forest land and various charges related to air pollution. In addition to the injured firefighters, court papers filed by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch referenced two unnamed minors who were harmed by Kincade Fire smoke.
For PG&E, the Kincade Fire case opens another chapter in a longrunning legal saga that has already made the company one of the most criminally convicted businesses in U.S. history.
In 2017, PG&E was sentenced to five years’ probation after felony convictions that arose from a 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno. Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony
counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the historic 2018 Camp Fire, which virtually destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise.
No executives were prosecuted in connection with those cases. But PG&E has faced persistent scrutiny from U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the company’s probation and has expanded its terms to account for wildfire safety, including mandating improvements to power line inspections and tree trimming.
It’s not clear how Alsup will react to the Kincade Fire case, but another criminal conviction would violate the company’s probation terms. Alsup is already considering imposing new requirements on preemptive power shutoffs in response to PG&E’s culpability for the deadly Zogg Fire in Shasta and Tehama counties last year.
PG&E disputed the Kincade Fire criminal charges in a written statement.
The company said it was “saddened by the property losses and personal impacts” caused by the fire and praised the “courageous efforts” of first responders.
PG&E said it accepted the state’s previous conclusion that the Kincade Fire was caused by a faulty power line owned by the company. The utility said it was making that admission “in the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims,” while noting that company leaders have not been able to review the report or evidence gathered by state fire investigators.
“However, we do not believe there was any crime here,” the company said. “We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”
State fire investigators previously determined that the Kincade Fire was caused by a broken cable on a PG&E transmission tower in a geothermal field near Geyserville. Ravitch said in a statement that she went to the fire’s location as soon as it was safe and has been working with state officials and outside experts “to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire.”
“I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings,” she said in the statement.
Civil claims arising from PG&E’s role in a series of disasters, including the Camp Fire and the Wine Country firestorm of 2017, prompted the company to file for bankruptcy protection in early 2019. PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer after agreeing to compensate fire victims through a settlement fund intended to be valued at $13.5 billion. Kincade Fire victims were not part of the case.
Gerald Singleton, an attorney for fire victims, said he doesn’t think the latest criminal charges will hurt the bankruptcy settlement fund, half of which is in company stock. PG&E shares closed Tuesday at $11.44, down 1.93%.
Singleton said PG&E should still be able to compensate everyone affected by the Kincade Fire and other blazes started by the company.
“This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” Singleton said. “Everybody understands that Kincade was a major mistake. It’s obviously something that PG&E was going to have to deal with.”
Local residents welcomed the news that PG&E might be held criminally liable for the Kincade Fire — and described the trauma of having to evacuate because of fires year after year.
“I think they’ve been negligent,” Pat Frey said of the utility as she stood inside an antique shop in Healdsburg. Frey said she wished some PG&E executives would spend time in jail.
Alexis Greenberg has had to evacuate her home five times since 2012, including during the Kincade Fire. A Maryland native, Greenberg said the constant, nearly annual stress of having to evacuate has made her consider moving out of California.
“It was traumatic,” she said. “If there’s another really bad fire season, I might move back.” But for now, she said, “I’m holding onto the California dream a little bit longer.”
The Kincade Fire taught many wineries in Alexander Valley that they may have to fend for themselves during fire season, said Lisa Mattson, marketing director at Jordan Winery, which the fire approached but did not damage.
“We cannot hope that the public utilities will maintain their equipment properly, nor will the firefighters have the capacity to save a property like ours,” she said.
PG&E is set to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court on April 20.