SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Pacific Gas & Electric is facing criminal charges again following a massive California wildfire — in this case, the worst incident of the 2019 fire season.
The Sonoma County district attorney indicted the state’s largest utility Tuesday in connection with the Kincade fire, the October 2019 wildfire that didn’t kill anyone but forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 residents.
The Sonoma case shows that PG&E, nearly a year removed from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy driven by wildfire liabilities, continues to struggle with fire risk and its legal consequences. Last month the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention blamed PG&E for last September’s Zogg fire, which killed four people in Shasta County, and referred the case to the Shasta district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.
And last summer the San Francisco-based utility pleaded guilty to 85 counts of manslaughter after a faulty transmission tower sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history, the 2018 Camp fire in Paradise.
Criminal charges against a corporation generally end with a fine and little else. The Paradise case ended with a $4 million fine — and a Butte County Superior Court judge’s lament that, under the law, he couldn’t send utility executives to prison.
Jill Ravitch, the Sonoma district attorney, said PG&E Corp. was being charged with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors in the Kincade fire, including charges of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury.
Kincade was particularly controversial because PG&E had imposed one of its “public safety power shutoffs” in the region due to high winds, but hadn’t blacked out its transmission lines because it believed its transmission towers, which tend to be at a relatively safe distance from trees, wouldn’t pose a wildfire risk. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was so incensed that he raised the possibility of staging a takeover of PG&E, which was still in bankruptcy at the time.
Since then, the utility has become more aggressive about shutting down its transmission system during wind storms. Transmission lines carry power in bulk over large distances.
The Oct. 23, 2019, fire began when a jumper cable broke on a transmission tower near Geyserville, causing molten metal to ignite the dry vegetation below. The fire seriously injured six firefighters, burned 78,000 acres and destroyed 374 homes and other buildings.
“I went with others from my time, along with Cal Fire, to the location in the Geysers where we believe the fire began as soon as it was safe to do so,” Ravitch said in a prepared statement. “Since that time, we have been working with Cal Fire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire. I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings.” Cal Fire had already blamed PG&E for the fire.
The utility, however, said it plans to fight the charges.
“In the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims, we will accept Cal Fire’s finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the fire, even though we have not had access to the agency’s report or the evidence it gathered,” the company said in a written statement. “However, we do not believe there was any crime here. We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”
The evacuation was the largest in Sonoma County history, including all of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville. PG&E has already said it believes it will have to spend as much as $625 million paying for the damages from the Kincade fire.