Utility giant PG&E Corp. faces criminal charges for its role in a 2019 wildfire that burned 78,000 acres in Northern California, another blow to a company with a checkered history of being blamed for disasters and endangering public safety.
The charges come after PG&E pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deadliest fire in state history in 2018, and while the company faces scrutiny for yet another wildfire in 2020 that killed four people.
The company, which was driven into bankruptcy in 2019 after its equipment sparked blazes, faces five felony counts in connection with the Kincade Fire, which destroyed 374 buildings.
The utility said it’s challenging the criminal charges, though it acknowledges findings by state investigators that its equipment caused the fire.
“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,” PG&E said in an emailed 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.”
State investigators previously determined that a broken PG&E cable started the Kincade Fire northeast of the town of Geyserville. Brandon Gilbert, an assistant to Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Any criminal conviction is a violation of probation. It remains to be see how U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation, will react to the criminal charges. A harsh critic of the company, the judge has said he’s determined to prevent the utility’s equipment from being the cause of another fire.
PG&E’s equipment was long suspected of causing the Kincade fire that started on Oct. 23, 2019, as the utility had reported that one of its transmission lines malfunctioned near the location and time of the start of the blaze. The company said in May that it could book a loss of at least $600 million stemming from damages tied to the wildfire.
PG&E has said it expects to take a $275 million charge for last year’s Zogg Fire. Federal prosecutors have told Alsup that evidence “strongly suggests” it was caused by a tree falling on the utility’s equipment. The district attorney in Shasta County is reviewing the incident for possible criminal charges.
Serving most of northern and central California, PG&E is the state’s largest utility and used to wield considerable clout in Sacramento. But as California’s weather has turned warmer and drier in recent decades, the company’s equipment has triggered a string of deadly wildfires that forced PG&E into bankruptcy in 2019 and led many critics to call for breaking up the company. PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 intact last year, but still faces deep skepticism from customers and California politicians alike.
The company, and other utilities in the state, have responded to the fires by trying to harden their electric grids, making power lines less likely to fall during California’s autumn wind storms and less prone to spark flames if they do. They have also taken to cutting off electricity to customers in high-risk areas in advance of high winds. The preemptive blackouts infuriate customers but do appear to have reduced the number of fires triggered by power lines.