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Embattled California utility pleads not guilty to manslaughter, other charges

by Redding Record-Searchlight, Associated Press reports |

REDDING, Calif. – Pacific Gas & Electric on Thursday pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other charges it faces after its equipment sparked a wildfire that killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes in Northern California two years ago, prosecutors announced.

PG&E was arraigned at a court in Redding on 31 criminal counts and enhancements, including four counts of involuntary manslaughter, after being accused of recklessly starting the Zogg Fire, the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office said in a brief statement. A preliminary hearing in the case was set for January.

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 of land.

“The Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has been arraigned on 31 criminal counts and enhancements, including four counts of Involuntary Manslaughter, for recklessly starting the Zogg Fire in 2020,” the District Attorney’s Office said in a statement on its Facebook page. “The Investigation is on-going. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office Bureau of Investigations.”

Last year, 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 have sued the utility, alleging negligence. They say 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.

The district attorney determined that the company was criminally liable for the fire and charged the utility last September.

“Today we entered a formal not guilty plea to all charges in the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County,” the company said in a statement. “We accept CAL FIRE’s finding that a tree falling into our equipment started the fire, but we do not believe there was any criminal activity.”

The charges PG&E faces include enhancements for injury to a 29-year-old firefighter who was hit by a falling tree that fractured his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. They also include felony arson counts linked to several fires started by the utility's equipment in Shasta County over the last year.

PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after its aging equipment was blamed for a series of fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed 10,000 homes in Paradise and neighboring communities.

In February, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sued PG&E seeking reimbursement for nearly $33 million in costs to fight the Zogg Fire.

Cal Fire says a tree fell onto electrical lines along Zogg Mine Road in western Shasta County, sparking the blaze that started on a hot, windy day in September 2020.

The Shasta County District Attorney, along with officials in four other north state counties, announced in April that they had reached a settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the utility firm's responsibility for the 2021 Dixie Fire.

The civil prosecution settlement requires PG&E to make payments by this summer to people who lost their homes in the wildfire and to continue making extensive improvements in their infrastructure throughout the north state.

The settlement also requires PG&E to pay back $29.5 million by July to local charities and organizations involved in providing assistance after the fire.