PG&E Fights Criminal Charges Over 2019 California Wildfire

By Joel Rosenblatt and Mark Chediak | May 13, 2021

Utility giant PG&E Corp. rejected criminal liability for its role in a 2019 wildfire that burned 78,000 acres in Northern California, arguing that a local prosecutor is twisting state law in an attempt to find the company culpable.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch last month charged PG&E with with 33 counts stemming from the Kincade Fire. In a state court filing Tuesday, the utility said it has accepted regulators’ conclusions that the fire was caused by PG&E’s equipment but will contest the 25 counts that have never been applied to a wildfire.

PG&E said in a statement that its thoughts are with those who lost homes and businesses in the fire, and especially injured firefighters. The filing outlines “why we believe the majority of these charges should be dismissed.”

Flames engulf a home as it burns along Highway 128 during the Kincade fire in Healdsburg, California, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

While California health and safety codes make it a crime to emit air contaminants, those laws govern pollution-generating industries such as oil refineries, factories and dumps, PG&E said in the filing. They don’t apply to companies that may cause a wildfire and, as a byproduct, “cause contaminants to be emitted into the air from the property of third parties.”

PG&E, which was driven into bankruptcy in 2019 due to wildfires caused by its equipment, is attempting to avoid being convicted of felonies a third time.

It pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deadliest fire in state history in 2018, and has been on probation since its 2016 conviction for safety violations stemming from a fatal gas-pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010. The district attorney in Shasta County is reviewing last year’s Zogg Fire, which killed four people, for possible criminal charges against the utility.

Asked about the Kincade criminal charges during an earnings call last month, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Patricia K. Poppe said Ravitch “has a constituency.”

“She’s elected. She has a job to do,” Poppe said. “We disagree with those charges. We don’t think there’s a criminal basis for those charges. We will fight those charges.”

State investigators previously determined that a broken PG&E cable started the Kincade Fire northeast of the town of Geyserville.

Ravitch’s office declined to comment Wednesday.

The case is California v. PG&E, SCR-745228-1, California Superior Court, Sonoma County (Santa Rosa).

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