Pacific Gas & Electric agrees to pay $55m to avert California wildfire prosecution

Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s largest utility provider, has agreed to pay more than $55m to avoid criminal prosecution for two large wildfires started by its ageing power lines in northern California.

PG&E does not admit wrongdoing in the two settlements reached with prosecutors for last year’s Dixie fire, one of the biggest wildfires in California’s history, and the 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma county. The deals expedite damage payments to the hundreds of people whose homes were destroyed.

PG&E will also submit to five years of oversight by an independent monitor similar to the supervision it faced during five years of criminal probation after it was convicted for misconduct that contributed to its natural gas explosion that killed eight people in 2010.

The embattled utility company has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires since 2017 that wiped out more than 23,000 houses and businesses and killed more than 100 people. It previously reached settlements with wildfire victims of more than $25.5bn.

The Dixie fire burned nearly 1m acres (3,900 sq km) in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties and destroyed more than 1,300 houses and other buildings. The blaze was caused by a tree hitting electrical distribution lines west of a dam in the Sierra Nevada, where the fire began on 13 July 2021, according to investigators with the California department of forestry and fire protection.

The settlement for the Dixie fire was made by district attorneys in Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte counties, who had not yet filed charges.

Sonoma county prosecutors filed 33 criminal charges last year accusing PG&E of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash from the 2019 Kincade fire.

Fire officials said a PG&E transmission line sparked the fire, which destroyed 374 buildings in wine country and sent nearly 100,000 people fleeing as it burned through 120 square miles (311 sq km). It was the largest evacuation in the county’s history, prosecutors said, including the entire towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville.

The utility’s federal probation ended in late January, raising worries from the judge who had been using his powers to oversee the utility to try to force management to reduce the fire risks posed by its crumbling power lines. At the time PG&E emerged from the probation, US district judge William Alsup warned PG&E remained a “continuing menace to California” and urged state prosecutors to try to rein in the company.