Zogg Fire investigation puts PG&E under microscope again

Months after concluding a bankruptcy case arising from its responsibility for numerous wildfires, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is facing new scrutiny over yet another devastating blaze.

Legal pressure has been building against PG&E as state officials investigate whether the company is responsible for the 56,338-acre Zogg Fire in Shasta and Tehama counties that killed four people and destroyed 204 buildings.

It’s following an all-too-familiar pattern for PG&E, even though the cause of the fire is still unconfirmed. The company said state fire investigators seized some of its electrical equipment near the Zogg Fire’s origin point. U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the company’s probation in a deadly 2010 gas line explosion, is asking pointed questions. And victims have begun or are considering civil lawsuits.

At least one Zogg Fire suit has already been filed, and a Bay Area attorney told The Chronicle he is preparing to initiate another.

PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in an email that the company recognizes “the impact that the tragic loss of life and devastation of the Zogg Fire have had on this community.” He noted that the company told regulators about its possible link to the fire after Cal Fire took some PG&E equipment as part of its investigation.

“While we are cooperating fully with Cal Fire, we do not have access to the equipment that was taken by Cal Fire investigators, nor do we know how this equipment may factor into its investigation,” Noonan said. “As a result, we do not know what role, if any, our equipment may have played.”

A house burns during the Zogg Fire in September. The blaze in Shasta and Tehama counties may have been sparked by PG&;E equipment.
A house burns during the Zogg Fire in September. The blaze in Shasta and Tehama counties may have been sparked by PG&E equipment. Photo: Ethan Swope / AP
Mike Danko, a Redwood City personal injury attorney, said he is working to enlist clients with property damage, emotional distress and wrongful death claims against PG&E over the Zogg Fire, though he had not filed anything as of last week. A veteran of legal fights with PG&E, Danko said the latest fire appears to be another effect of poor decisions made by company executives years ago.

“PG&E right now is definitely still, without question, a work in progress,” Danko said. “We’re still suffering the fallout from a long history of very bad management. … The consequences of that cannot be changed overnight.”

The utility and its parent, PG&E Corp., concluded their bankruptcy case this summer after brokering a $13.5 billion settlement with survivors of the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 Wine Country wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire, which nearly destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise. PG&E also pleaded guilty in June to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history.

The Zogg Fire shouldn’t significantly harm PG&E’s financial standing, given its fire insurance coverage and money available through a relatively new state fund authorized by a 2019 wildfire law, said Travis Miller, a utilities analyst at Morningstar Research Services.

“It looks like there would be little impact on shareholders,” Miller said.

As for PG&E’s longer-term outlook in light of the Zogg Fire, Miller pointed to various steps the company has been taking to reduce its fire risks, including power shut-offs during dry windstorms, tree trimming and equipment upgrades.

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