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Regional Interests

Sonoma County Files Criminal Charges Against PG&E for Starting 2019 Kincade Fire

Sonoma County prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint charging PG&E with five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts in connection with the 2019 Kincade Fire, a blaze that injured six firefighters, incinerated more than 170 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people.

The complaint filed in Sonoma County Superior Court on Tuesday morning not only accuses the utility of recklessly sparking a fire that caused serious injuries and extensive property damage, but of also unleashing clouds of wildfire smoke that posed a potentially deadly danger to residents.

In a statement, PG&E said it was “saddened” by the fire’s impact on the community but rejected the idea it had committed any crime.

The fire began the night of Oct. 23, 2019, as hot, dry, gusty winds swept the mountains in the northeastern corner of Sonoma County. PG&E had initiated a wildfire safety power shutoff in much of the county, but had left a high-voltage transmission line energized in The Geysers geothermal field, northwest of Calistoga.

Cal Fire announced last July that its investigation of the fire traced the cause to a PG&E transmission tower in The Geysers. The firefighting agency said an energized cable on the tower had broken free, swung against the tower and caused an arc —a prolonged electrical discharge. Molten metal fell into the surrounding vegetation and, with winds in the area gusting over 80 mph, the resulting blaze began racing toward the towns of Geyserville and Healdsburg.

The wildfire destroyed 174 homes and 200 other structures, burning vineyards and prompting authorities to order 100,000 residents from Geyserville, Windsor and Santa Rosa to leave their homes. Six firefighters were injured as crews struggled to stop the flames from making a catastrophic leap into more densely populated neighborhoods.

In a statement, Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch said she and others from her office began investigating the scene of the fire start in 2019 “as soon as it was safe to do so.” After Cal Fire concluded its probe and turned its findings over to Sonoma County, Ravitch said, the office’s investigators interviewed dozens of witnesses, issued search warrants and obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of documents for review.

The day after the fire started, PG&E made a preliminary report, noting that Cal Fire crews had spotted damage on a transmission tower near the fire’s suspected point of origin. In the following days, Bill Johnson, PG&E’s CEO at the time, said repeatedly that the tower where the problem occurred had been inspected four times in the two years before the fire and that several maintenance issues found on equipment there had been addressed.

Last year, PG&E declined to comment on Cal Fire’s investigation, saying it didn’t have access to the agency’s report or to the evidence it was based on. But in February, the utility acknowledged — apparently for the first time in public — that it had caused the fire.

“We understand at a high level that our equipment was responsible for that fire,” Aaron Johnson, the company’s vice president for wildfire safety, said during a California Public Utilities Commission workshop.

On Tuesday, PG&E issued a statement saying it was “saddened by the property losses and personal impacts” due to the fire. The utility went on to say it will accept Cal Fire’s conclusions about the fire’s cause. But it disputed the notion the fire’s start involved any criminal wrongdoing.

“We do not believe there was any crime here,” the company said. “We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”

Tuesday’s criminal complaint is just the latest legal difficulty for a company whose aging equipment has been shown to be the cause of numerous massive fires that have killed more than 110 Californians since 2015.

Those wildfire calamities include the North Bay fires of October 2017, in which 22 people died in blazes that Cal Fire found to involve PG&E equipment.

PG&E also pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed about 14,000 homes in and around the Butte County town of Paradise.

Those disasters set the stage for the company’s filing for bankruptcy protection in 2019 — a year that passed without anyone dying in a PG&E-related fire.

But last September, a tree fell on a PG&E power line southwest of Redding, in Shasta County, sparking a fire that killed four residents of a rural community. Cal Fire has turned over results of its investigation into that blaze — the Zogg Fire — to Shasta County prosecutors.

The Zogg Fire is also the subject of an ongoing inquiry by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco, who oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for convictions arising from the San Bruno natural gas pipeline blast of September 2010, that killed eight people.

Alsup has questioned whether the tree that fell on the power line posed an obvious hazard and should have been removed, and has also raised questions about the competence and effectiveness of PG&E’s vegetation management program.

The judge is currently weighing additional conditions of probation against the company, including whether to require it to consider the presence of hazardous trees near power lines when it decides on the scope of future public safety power shutoffs.

Copyright 2021 KQED