PG&E Avoids Criminal Charges For Dixie Fire, Kincade Fire

PG&E Avoids Criminal Charges For Dixie Fire, Kincade Fire

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) will not be criminally charged for two wildfires its equipment started under settlements that district attorneys announced on Monday.

The settlements were a better ending for communities and fire victims, according to prosecutors, since it is tough to hold corporations accountable due to criminal law limitations. Others feel PG&E basically bought its way out of criminal responsibility.

No criminal charges will be filed with regards to the Dixie Fire, and a criminal complaint involving the Kincade Fire will be dismissed, as part of the settlements. The two fires burned over 1 million acres of land in six counties, destroyed over 1,700 buildings, led to nine firefighters being injured and forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

PG&E still faces criminal charges in the Zogg Fire, which burned 56,000 acres of land in Tehama and Shasta counties, destroyed over 200 buildings and killed four people.

PG&E admitted no wrongdoing under the settlements, which were announced on Monday. The utility agreed to pay around $55 million over the next five years in payments to local education organizations and nonprofits, as well as civil penalties. The utility also agreed to reimburse Butte and Sonoma counties for costs regarding prosecution and investigation of the cases. These costs are not able to be passed on to ratepayers. The utility also must create a program for Dixie Fire victims who lost homes so they can submit claims for expedited review, expedited approval and expedited payment.

“Although criminal charges are dismissed, the level of punishment and oversight provided by this Judgment is greater than could be achieved against a corporation in criminal court,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.

Had the utility been prosecuted in a criminal trial, it was expected they would be fined almost $9.4 million, most of which the State of California would have received, according to Ravitch. District attorneys said a criminal fine with regards to the Dixie Fire could have been, at most, a $329,417 fine.

PG&E has agreed to hire 160 to 200 employees to strengthen safety work in Northern California. The utility also agreed to monitor its vegetation management and system inspection work in Northern California for the next five years.

PG&E recently left a five year long felony probation connected with a natural gas pipeline explosion which killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010. The utility set at least 31 fires which burned almost 1.5 million acres and killed 113 people during the probation, according to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who urged state prosecutors to implement additional oversight of PG&E.

A team of independent experts with Filsinger Energy Partners will oversee the monitoring. This will make sure PG&E complies with a wildfire mitigation safety plan it is mandated to file with the California Public Utilities Commision (CPUC).

PG&E was facing 28 misdemeanor and five felony counts regarding the Kincade fire, which began on October 23, 2019 under a PG&E transmission tower in Sonoma County. The fire burned over 77,000 acres, destroyed 374 buildings and injured six firefighters. The fire also caused the largest evacuation in the history of the county.

A CAL FIRE investigation found that the fire was caused by a broken jumper cable which failed and arced against a steel transmission tower, causing sparks to fly into dry vegetation. The cable was attached to a line that led nowhere but had not been de-energized, according to prosecutors.

PG&E separately agreed to pay $125 million in penalties and fines under a Kincade Fire settlement reached with CPUC.

PG&E Avoids Criminal Charges For Dixie Fire, Kincade Fire

Penalties have not yet been assessed by regulators regarding the Dixie Fire, which burned about 40% of Plumas County and destroyed the town of Greenville. The fire burned 963,309 acres of land and destroyed 1,329 buildings. It was the second largest fire in the history of the state and was the first fire to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other.

The Dixie Fire started on July 13 when a tree fell onto a power line in Feather River Canyon, according to CAL FIRE investigators. PG&E said its equipment might have also started the Fly Fire, which started nine days afterwards, eventually merging with the Dixie Fire.

District attorneys in Butte and Plumas counties had been investigating PG&E’s potential criminal liability for the Dixie Fire. Those district attorneys, together with other Northern California district attorneys, chose to instead file a civil complaint against PG&E.

The settlement reached on Monday mandates that PG&E take additional safety measures in Northern California, including moving at least 400 miles of power lines underground by the end of 2024, and implementing automatic power shutoffs when objects contact high-risk power lines by the end of 2022.


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