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PG&E Will Face Criminal Charges for Shasta County Wildfire That Killed Four

PG&E will face criminal charges because its equipment sparked a wildfire last September that killed four people, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced Thursday.

It would be the latest action against the nation’s largest utility, which was forced into bankruptcy over a series of catastrophic wildfires ignited by its electrical grid.

In a brief statement on Facebook, Bridgett said her office has determined that PG&E was “criminally liable” for the Zogg Fire.

Prosecutors haven’t yet decided which charges to file, but they plan to do so before the Sept. 27 anniversary of the blaze, Bridgett said.

PG&E later issued a statement disputing the district attorney’s conclusion.

The company said the loss of life and devastation from the fire was “heartbreaking” but said it has resolved civil claims with Shasta County and continues to reach settlements with victims and their families “in an effort to make it right.”

“We do not, however, agree with the district attorney’s conclusion that criminal charges are warranted given the facts of this case,” the utility’s statement said.

Pushed by strong winds, the blaze raged through foothills southeast of Redding, killing four people, burning 56,338 acres — nearly double the area of San Francisco — and destroying 204 structures in and around the communities of Ono and Igo.

In March, Cal Fire investigators concluded that the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E transmission line. Two counties, Shasta and Tehama, have sued the utility for negligence, arguing that PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.

PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in Central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after its equipment was blamed for a series of fires. Those disasters included the November 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in the Butte County communities of Paradise, Magalia and Concow.

PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter over that blaze, which was linked to a badly maintained and aging transmission tower.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with wildfire victims. But it still faces both civil and criminal actions in connection with subsequent fires.

In April, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office filed charges over the October 2019 Kincade Fire. Like the Camp and Zogg fire, the blaze started during an autumn windstorm. It burned hundreds of homes and prompted authorities to order nearly 200,000 people from their homes.

Cal Fire is currently investigating the role of the utility’s equipment in sparking the Dixie Fire, which started July 13 in the Feather River Canyon, about 5 miles from where the Camp Fire began.

Cal Fire now lists the blaze, which had burned 240,595 acres as of Friday morning, as the 11th largest in California’s modern history. The fire has burned through heavily forested stretches of the northern Sierra, destroying about 40 homes and forcing the evacuation of communities in Plumas County.

In response to the news that it was under scrutiny once again by Cal Fire investigators, PG&E last week announced an initiative to reduce fire risk by burying 10,000 miles of power lines.

Company officials conceded that they don’t have a firm cost estimate or timeline for the massive project, which they alternately compared to a :moonshot” and the Marshall Plan, the U.S. program that helped rebuild much of Western Europe after World War II.

Copyright 2021 KQED