Smoke rises beyond a PG&E high-voltage power line in Butte County on Nov. 9, the day after the start of the Camp Fire. Both Cal Fire and a federal judge are looking into the utility's possible role in starting the blaze, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Butte County's top prosecutor says PG&E settled a criminal allegation arising from a 2017 fire near Paradise in part because the company wanted to avoid charges that could violate its probation in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion case.
The new details about what led to the settlement come amid intense scrutiny into PG&E's electrical infrastructure in the county in the wake of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and the utility announced in early October — just weeks before the Camp Fire destroyed most of Paradise and killed 85 county residents — that they had reached a $1.5 million settlement arising from the Honey Fire.
That blaze burned an estimated 75 to 150 acres and briefly threatened the foothills town during the October 2017 Northern California fire siege that killed 44 people in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Yuba counties.
Cal Fire investigators blamed the Honey Fire on an oak branch that fell on a PG&E power line. The fire agency also said it found evidence the company violated a provision of state law requiring adequate clearance between electrical lines and surrounding vegetation and referred the case to Ramsey’s office.
"Cal Fire’s investigation showed this was the result of an overhanging rotten branch that should have been cleared," Ramsey said in an interview Friday. "It came down, touched the wires, caused the fire."
PG&E's legal exposure in the case seemed modest. The blaze burned no structures, and no one was killed or injured. The violation it was accused of was a misdemeanor, and Ramsey says a conviction or guilty plea would have meant a fine of just $1,000.
But he says that when it became clear to PG&E that his office planned to press charges, the company wanted to talk "about something other than a criminal filing."
Those conversations led to the company's agreement to pay $1.5 million to hire a pair of two-person fire safety teams and buy the vehicles and equipment they'll need over the next four years to inspect PG&E's power lines in Butte County's backcountry.
"Our settlement was in lieu of a criminal prosecution," Ramsey said.
"We felt it was a criminal case, but a case that was a thousand-dollar fine. PG&E offered to pay basically $1.5 million to do the greater good of hiring Cal Fire/Butte County inspectors, to inspect their lines to prevent future fires. We felt that was a much better outcome for the citizens of Butte."
As part of the settlement, PG&E admitted no wrongdoing or liability for the Honey Fire.
At the time the agreement was announced, Sumeet Singh, vice president of the company's Community Wildfire Safety Program, said: "Years of drought, extreme heat and 129 million dead trees require that we continuously adapt to keep our communities safe. We appreciate the partnership with the Butte County Fire Department to complete this important safety work.”
PG&E on Tuesday declined further comment on the settlement.
Ramsey said PG&E was also motivated by something else in pursuing the agreement: avoiding a charge that could violate the terms of probation imposed after its post-San Bruno conviction for breaking federal pipeline safety laws.
In 2016, a federal jury in San Francisco found the company guilty of five violations of safety regulations that occurred before the Sept. 9, 2010, San Bruno blast. The explosion, caused by a ruptured 30-inch natural gas pipeline, killed eight, injured 58 and destroyed dozens of homes.
Under the sentence handed down in January 2017 by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, the company was fined $3 million and ordered to run $3 million in advertising to publicize its conviction and punishment. The utility was also required to have its employees -- even top executives -- perform a total of 10,000 hours of community service.
Henderson's conditions also included five years of probation, a period during which, according to sentencing documents, "PG&E shall not commit another federal, state, or local crime."
In approaching Butte County about the Honey Fire charges, Ramsey said the company's lawyers "first tried to convince us that we didn’t have the evidence to do a criminal filing. We got past that fairly quickly. Then (the company) was asking, ‘Isn’t there ... something that could be done to put this off?’ We insisted that no, we weren’t going to do that."
At that point, Ramsey said, the company's deeper interest emerged.
"It was fairly clear that they were concerned about their federal felony probation. And a filing in Butte County, and a criminal conviction in Butte County, even on a misdemeanor, would violate that probation," Ramsey said.
PG&E has faced scrutiny over the safety of its electrical power system in the aftermath of the 2017 fire siege. Cal Fire investigators have found the that the company's equipment was involved in starting at least 16 of last year's fires.
That scrutiny has intensified since the start of the Camp Fire on Nov. 8. The company reported that it experienced an outage on a high-voltage line at about the same time and place where the catastrophic blaze began.
Judge William Alsup, who took over the utility's probation in the San Bruno case from the now-retired Henderson, late last month ordered the company, federal prosecutors and a court-appointed monitor "to provide an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County and all other wildfires in California" since it was sentenced in early 2017.
Alsup further asked the parties whether the probation requirement that the utility refrain from "further federal, state, or local crimes might be implicated were any wildfire started by reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines."
The judge also invited the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to weigh in on whether "reckless operation or maintenance" of PG&E electrical lines would violate state law.