Pacific Gas & Electric, the struggling utility that started some of California’s most destructive wildfires, faces new criminal charges, for its role in starting a 2019 wildfire that burned 120 square miles in Sonoma County north of San Francisco.
The county district attorney on Tuesday indicted PG&E, which emerged from bankruptcy protection last year, with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including recklessly causing a fire with serious bodily harm, in connection with the Kincade fire. The blaze damaged or destroyed more than 400 buildings and seriously injured six firefighters.
This is the third round of criminal charges filed against PG&E, California’s largest utility. In 2017, a jury convicted PG&E of five deaths in a gas pipeline explosion seven years earlier. And the utility pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of manslaughter in connection with the 2018 campfire, which was started by its equipment. This fire destroyed the town of Paradise and helped drive PG&E to bankruptcy, where it worked to resolve an estimated $ 30 billion wildfire liability.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded that the Kincade fire started after high winds struck a cable from a PG&E tower at the Geysers geothermal field. The blaze took 15 days to contain, and district attorney Jill Ravitch described the evacuation required in some cities as the largest ever in Sonoma County, a wine hub in California.
If found guilty, PG&E could face additional fines and penalties for violating federal probation that arose out of the pipeline explosion case. The company has paid billions of dollars to governments, families, insurance companies and others for disasters caused by its equipment, which regulators say was often very poorly maintained.
In a statement Tuesday, PG&E pledged to continue to upgrade its equipment and enforce safety practices to protect Californians. The company said it accepted the findings that its equipment caused the Kincade fire but did not believe it was criminally responsible.
“We are saddened by the property losses and personal impacts suffered by our customers and communities in and around Sonoma County as a result of the Kincade fire in October 2019,” the company said. “We don’t think there was any crime here. We remain committed to making sure this is fair to all affected and working to further reduce the risk of wildfires on our system. “
The company emerged from bankruptcy last summer, agreeing to pay $ 13.5 billion to a fund set up to compensate tens of thousands of people and families who lost their homes in forest fires started by PG&E.
The exit from bankruptcy allowed the utility to participate in a $ 20 billion state wildland fire fund with other investor-owned utilities in California to help cover the costs of future fires in forest.
The utility has worked to improve its equipment, adding weather stations, cameras, micro-grids and more robust pylons and transmission lines. Patricia K. Poppe, who became CEO of PG&E’s parent company in January, said she had taken on the job “to make sure we take care of everyone who has been injured and return them to safe again in California ”.
“We will be working around the clock until this is true for everyone we are privileged to serve,” she added.