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District attorney in California county hits utility with criminal charges

by J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle |

The district attorney in California's Sonoma County has filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed 374 buildings and burned 78,000 acres in the wooded hills of Wine Country.

PG&E was charged Tuesday with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors for its role in causing the most severe wildfire of 2019, forcing evacuation orders for all of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville. Six firefighters were injured while battling the blaze, and 174 homes were incinerated.

The alleged crimes that PG&E committed include recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures, recklessly causing a fire to forest land and various charges related to air pollution. In addition to the injured firefighters, court papers filed by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch referenced two unnamed minors who were harmed by Kincade Fire smoke.

For PG&E, the Kincade Fire case opens another chapter in the company’s long-running legal woes that have already led to felony convictions related to two other recent disasters.

In 2017, the company was sentenced to five years of probation on felony charges stemming from a 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno. And just last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the historic 2018 Camp Fire, which virtually destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise.

PG&E disputed the Kincade Fire charges in a written statement.

The company said it was “saddened by the property losses and personal impacts” caused by the fire and praised the “courageous efforts” of first responders.

PG&E said it accepted the state’s previous conclusion that the Kincade Fire was caused by a faulty power line owned by the company. The utility said it was making that admission “in the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims,” while noting that company leaders have not been able to review the report or evidence gathered by state fire investigators.

“However, 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.”

State fire investigators previously determined that the Kincade Fire was caused by a broken cable on a PG&E transmission tower in a geothermal field near Geyserville. Ravitch said in a statement that she went to the fire’s location as soon as it was safe and has been working with state officials and outside experts “to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade Fire.”

“I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings,” she said in the statement.

PG&E is set to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court on April 20 at 1:30 p.m.