Pacific Gas & Electric of California charged in a wildfire in 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A California prosecutor filed 33 criminal charges Tuesday accusing Pacific Gas & Electric of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash in a 2019 fire attributed to their teams.

The nation’s largest utility company denied any wrongdoing, even when it accepted that its transmission line started the fire.

The Sonoma County district attorney charged the utility with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors in the October 2019 Kincade fire north of San Francisco, including recklessly causing a fire that seriously injured six firefighters. The unidentified firefighters included a member of an inmate firefighting team and at least two out-of-state contractors, one of whom suffered second- and third-degree burns to his legs and torso.

Firefighters said a PG&E transmission line sparked the blaze, which destroyed 374 buildings and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee as it burned 120 square miles (311 square kilometers). It was the largest evacuation in county history, prosecutors said, including the entire cities of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville.

The charges and related improvements accuse the company of destroying inhabited structures and emitting air pollutants “with reckless disregard for the risk of great bodily injury” from toxic smoke from wildfires and related particulate matter and ash, putting in danger to public health. They allege that the utility company failed to maintain facilities, including transmission lines, among the numerous related misdemeanor charges.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she and other investigators went to the fire’s ignition site as soon as it was safe, and have since been working with state and independent experts to determine the cause and responsibility for the fire.

Ravitch said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection informed his office in July that the fire started when a cable in a transmission tower broke in high winds and caused an electrical arc when it touched the tower. That caused the molten material to fall into the dry vegetation below and ignite a fire that took 15 days to contain, he said.

He said his office’s own investigation included interviews with dozens of witnesses, search warrants and a review of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. Prosecutors also consulted with other law enforcement and regulatory agencies and independent experts.

PG&E said in a statement that it accepts the findings that its transmission line in the Geysers geothermal field northeast of Geyserville caused the fire “in the spirit of working to do the right thing for the victims,” ​​although it has not seen the report or the evidence. of state fire investigators.

“However, we do not believe that there has been any crime here,” the company said in a statement. “We remain committed to getting it right for everyone affected and working to further reduce the risk of wildfires in our system.”

Tuesday’s charges are the latest in a series of similar problems for the utility that serves more than 16 million people in much of Northern California.

PG & E’s alleged criminal negligence in the Sonoma County wildfire occurred while the company was mired in bankruptcy sparked by a series of deadly hells that were ignited by the utility’s dilapidated equipment during 2017 and 2018.

The deadliest, in Butte County, wiped out the entire city of Paradise in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history. PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in the fire last June.

Although then-PG&E CEO Bill Johnson appeared in court to plead guilty to some of the surviving families, no one from the company went to prison. Instead, the company paid the maximum penalty of $ 4 million.

PG&E exited bankruptcy protection shortly after those pleas and settlements to cover the damage caused by its impaired network. The settlements include a $ 13.5 billion fund for wildfire victims that recently began distributing some of the money to help people rebuild their lives.

State investigators said last month that a northern California wildfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings last year started when tree limbs came into contact with utility lines. public. The wind-driven Zogg Fire tore through rural communities in Shasta and Tehama counties last September and October.

The Sonoma County wildfire also drew the ire of a federal judge overseeing PG & E’s ongoing criminal probation for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, a southern suburb of San Francisco.

US District William Alsup, which has repeatedly criticized PG&E for poorly maintained equipment, is considering order changes that could force the utility company to shut down its power lines during dry and windy conditions even more frequently than in recent years.


Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San Francisco.


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