PG&E to pay more than $55 million to avoid criminal prosecution for starting two wildfires

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will avoid criminal charges for two wildfires started by its equipment under settlements announced Monday by district attorneys of six Northern California counties.

As part of the agreements, no criminal charges will be filed in connection with last year’s Dixie fire, and a criminal complaint regarding the 2019 Kincade fire will be dismissed. The utility still faces charges in the 2020 Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings when it burned through 56,000 acres in Shasta and Tehama counties.

In return, PG&E has agreed to pay about $55 million over five years in civil penalties and payments to local nonprofits and educational organizations. The utility will also launch a direct claims program for victims of the Dixie fire through which those who lost their homes can submit claims for expedited review, approval and payment, according to PG&E.

“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 Dist. Atty. Jill Ravitch said in a statement. The costs will not be passed on to ratepayers, she said.

PG&E has also agreed to hire 160 to 200 employees in Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, Sonoma and Tehama counties to bolster safety work, and enter into a five-year monitorship of its system inspection and vegetation management work in those counties. The work will be overseen by a team of independent experts with Filsinger Energy Partners, according to a news release from the Sonoma County district attorney’s office.

PG&E had faced five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts in the Kincade fire, including recklessly causing a fire that seriously injured six firefighters. Proceedings in the case had begun and included two days of testimony during a preliminary hearing. PG&E has agreed to reimburse Sonoma County $750,000 for the costs of investigating and prosecuting the case.

The fire began Oct. 23, 2019, under a PG&E transmission tower near the Geysers geothermal field in northern Sonoma County. It burned more than 77,000 acres, destroyed 374 buildings and seriously injured six firefighters over the course of 15 days, prompting the largest evacuation in the county’s history.

An investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection later identified the cause of the fire as a broken jumper cable that failed after years of wind-driven wear and arced against a steel transmission tower, sending sparks into dry vegetation below.

PG&E has separately agreed to pay $125 million in fines and penalties under a settlement reached with the California Public Utilities Commission in connection with the fire.

The Dixie fire started July 13, 2020, in Feather River Canyon when a Douglas fir fell onto an electrical distribution line, which Cal Fire investigators identified as the cause of the nearly 1 million-acre blaze. In federal court filings, PG&E described a series of mishaps and delays that resulted in an employee not reaching the site until about 10 hours later, by which time a 600- to 800-square-foot fire had ignited.

The utility has said its equipment might also be to blame for sparking the Fly fire, which started nine days later and eventually merged with the Dixie fire.

District attorneys in at least two counties — Butte and Plumas — had been investigating PG&E for potential criminal liability in the fire.

This is a developing story. It will be updated as more information becomes available.

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