California utility charged with manslaughter in wildfire that killed 4
A California utility company has been charged with manslaughter in connection with a wildfire that killed four people last year, state prosecutors said Friday.
Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the charge against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in a news conference ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the fire in question.
The company has been charged with 31 counts in connection with the fire: 11 felonies and 20 misdemeanors.
Bridgett said her office had “sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that PG&E is “criminally liable for their reckless ignition" of the fire.
The fire began on Sept. 27, 2020, and was officially declared contained on Oct. 13. The fire burned nearly 57,000 acres in Shasta and Tehama counties, destroying 204 structures and damaging 27 others, according to Cal Fire.
The fire started when a grey pine with “significant physical injuries” fell into a PG&E electrical distribution line, Bridgett said on Friday.
PG&E was responsible for removing the tree, she added, noting that the company’s contractors had even marked it for removal in 2018. The tree, which had a “significant physical defect” in its trunk, leaned toward the electrical line until it ultimately fell on the line during a windstorm.
The four manslaughter charges are in connection with the four people who died as a result of the fire. The company is also facing “numerous counts” related to the smoke emissions caused during the fire, Bridgett said.
In response to the charges, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a video that while the company has accepted that the company's equipment started the fire, "we did not commit a crime."
“We’re putting everything we’ve got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk. Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this. Let’s be clear, my coworkers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that," Poppe said.
“I came to PG&E to make it right and make it safe, which is a commitment that my 40,000 coworkers and contract partners all share," Poppe continued. "We’ve already resolved many victim claims arising from the Zogg fire, along with the claims by the counties of Shasta and Tehama. And we are working hard to resolve the remaining claims.”
Bridgett said PG&E had a “repeated history” of causing wildfires and is “only getting worse.”
She noted that the company admitted responsibility for the 2018 Camp fire, which is considered one of the deadliest in California history, having caused 85 deaths.
The company is also being prosecuted in Sonoma County in connection with the 2019 Kinkade fire, which burned over 77,758 acres. A $31 million settlement was reached for civil claims in connection with that blaze
“It’s time that they change, and change does not come by doing nothing,” Bridgett said.
--Updated at 3:32 p.m.