The nation’s largest utility was charged with manslaughter and other crimes in connection with a California wildfire that killed four people last year and destroyed hundreds of homes and charred thousands of acres, prosecutors said Friday.
In a news conference, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said Pacific Gas & Electric was criminally liable for the blaze. The charges are part of a laundry list of legal action against the energy corporation, which has been blamed for other large wildfires across the state in recent years.
In total, Bridgett announced 31 charges – including 11 felonies – accusing PG&E of failing to mitigate the risk of fire by not removing hazardous trees around electrical lines.
“Their failure was reckless and criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people,” she said. “The job of a district attorney is to address these criminal problems when they occur. Whether it’s a robber, a rapist, a murderer or a corporation, I will use every tool possible to promote public safety.”
The charges stem from the Zogg Fire, which broke out on Sept. 27, 2020 and raged for 16 days in Northern California. Three of the victims died while trying to outrun the fire and were found in or near their vehicles. The fourth died in a hospital.
In a video statement, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said the company did not commit a crime, while noting the state’s extreme drought conditions and climate have changed the relationship between trees and power lines.
“This was a tragedy, four people died,” she said. “And my coworkers are working so hard to prevent fires and the catastrophic losses that come with them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not right.”
“We’re putting everything we’ve got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk,” Poppe added. “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.”
State fire investigators determined the Zogg Fire was ignited by gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line. Shasta and Tehama counties have sued the utility alleging negligence, saying PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.
The utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter last year in connection with a 2018 blaze – the deadliest in the United States in a century. That fire was ignited by a neglected electrical grid that destroyed the town of Paradise.
The company emerged from bankruptcy last year and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with some wildfire victims. But it still faces both civil and criminal actions, including charges from the Sonoma County district attorney’s office over the 2019 Kincade Fire that forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.