PG&E to escape prosecution for 2017 wildfires

21 March 2019

Pacific Gas & Electric Co will not face criminal charges for power line equipment failures that triggered a series of wildfires in 2017, prosecutors in four North Bay counties, California, have announced.

In a joint statement district attorneys said that they had extensively reviewed the causes of the blazes, and determined that "insufficient evidence exists to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that PG&E acted with a reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires, the standard necessary to sustain criminal charges."

The fires in question swept through mainly wilderness areas of Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt and Lake counties in the autumn of 2017. An initial investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire, known as Cal Fire, determined that PG&E's equipment caused the fires and that PG&E might be guilty of violating state resources codes by failing to meet maintenance and pruning standards.

Notably, the huge Tubbs Fire was not among the fires under review by the counties. Cal Fire determined that the fire, which swept through the city of Santa Rosa and surrounding areas, killing 22 people, was caused by an electrical failure on a private property near Calistoga in Napa Valley. Cal Fire said investigators did not find any violations of state law in that case.

The decision by the North Bay counties not to pursue criminal charges appears to be a minor positive outcome for the besieged utility giant. North Bay residents whose properties were destroyed by those fires can still file legal claims against PG&E.

PG&E still faces possible criminal repercussions for the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 19 000 structures, most of them homes, last November in the Butte County hillside towns of Paradise, Concow and Magalia and Pugla.

Cal Fire is still investigating the cause of that blaze, but PG&E has said in recent federal filings that its equipment likely caused the fire. If PG&E is found to have violated criminal law, through faulty maintenance or operations, it will be in violation of federal probation related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion and subject to undetermined criminal penalties.

The utility still faces tens of billions of dollars in potential fire liability claims from fires its equipment has caused in Northern California in recent years. The company filed for bankruptcy in January, and has recently indicated in filings that the company may not be sustainable in its present form.

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