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Judge dismisses criminal charges against California energy company in 2020 fatal wildfire

California Wildfire Utility
Posted at 7:09 PM, May 31, 2023

REDDING, Calif. (AP) — A California judge on Wednesday dismissed all charges against Pacific Gas & Electric in connection to a 2020 fatal wildfire sparked by its equipment that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed four people, including an 8-year-old.

The utility also reached a $50 million settlement agreement with the Shasta County District Attorney's Office, officials from both announced in separate statements.

The wind-whipped blaze began on Sept. 27, 2020, and raged through rugged terrain and small communities west of Redding, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers) of land in Shasta and Tehama counties.

In 2021, state fire investigators concluded the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E distribution line. Shasta and Tehama counties sued the utility, alleging negligence. They said PG&E failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier. The utility says the tree was subsequently cleared to stay.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett determined that the company was criminally liable for the fire and charged the utility later that year.

Shasta Superior Court Judge Daniel E. Flynn disagreed, and in a tentative ruling ahead of a hearing Wednesday said prosecutors did not present enough evidence to show PG&E engaged in criminal conduct, according to the Sacramento Bee, which obtained a copy of the ruling.

The “tree was not a known risk prior to the Zogg fire, and there is no evidence to support the People’s claim in their opposition that it was," the judge wrote.

The utility said in a statement that under the agreement with Shasta County, which is subject to court approval, it will fund $45 million in contributions to organizations dedicated to rebuilding and assisting local communities. The company will also pay a $5 million civil penalty to the county.

“We stand behind our thousands of trained and experienced coworkers and contractors working every day to keep Californians safe. We feel strongly that those good-faith judgments are not criminal,” said Patti Poppe, Chief Executive Officer of PG&E Corporation.

Bridgett said her goal was always to take PG&E to trial and hold them criminally responsible but that Flynn's tentative ruling changed her position and she agreed to a settlement that includes dropping all charges.

“I am unwilling to gamble with the safety of Shasta County,” she said. "I have a responsibility to the community and needed to secure what I can for all the citizens to prevent future wildfires, prevent future deaths and devastation, and to be as prepared as our county can be if another one occurs.”

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $150 million settlement between Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division over PG&E’s role in the Zogg Fire. As part of the agreement, the utility will pay $10 million as a penalty to California’s General Fund, and invest $140 million in shareholder funds in new wildfire mitigation efforts, officials said.