Counties Won't Press Charges Against PG&E for Series of October 2017 Fires

Mandi and Lane Summit embrace before their fire-destroyed home in Redwood Valley, north of Ukiah, in October 2017.  (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

Updated 4:20 p.m. Wednesday

District attorneys for four Northern California counties, including two in the Bay Area, announced Tuesday they will not file charges against PG&E in connection with a series of electrically sparked wildfires during the October 2017 fire siege that swept the region.

The prosecutors in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Humboldt counties said that there was not enough evidence to win convictions against the electrical utility for violating state laws that require specified clearances between power lines and nearby trees and brush.

Cal Fire announced last year that PG&E equipment played a role in 18 of the more than 170 blazes that broke out beginning the evening of Oct. 8, 2017. Cal Fire referred 11 of those PG&E-related incidents to district attorneys in half a dozen counties for possible prosecution.

Those fires did not include the deadliest of the October 2017 disasters: the Tubbs Fire, which started just outside the northern Napa Valley town of Calistoga and burned across the hills to the west to ravage whole neighborhoods in Santa Rosa. The blaze killed 22 people.

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Cal Fire said in January its investigation had found PG&E equipment did not cause the Tubbs Fire.

Wednesday's announcement -- announced by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch -- appears to cover a total of eight fires: the Adobe, Norrbom, Pocket, and Pythian/Oakmont fires in Sonoma County; the Atlas and Partrick fires in Napa County; the Sulphur Fire in Lake County; and the Blue Fire in Humboldt County.

Ravitch's announcement said that prosecutors determined they could not meet the high bar needed to convict the company.

"After an extensive review, each office 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 statement said.

Ravitch's office further explained that the cases would require proof "that PG&E acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees. Under California law, criminal negligence requires proof of actions that are reckless and incompatible with a proper regard for human life, and any charges must be proven unanimously to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The statement added that proving cases against PG&E was rendered more difficult because fires had "decimated" potential physical evidence.

The decision does not cover another deadly blaze that Cal Fire recommended for possible prosecution, the Redwood Fire in Mendocino County. That blaze, which broke out north of Ukiah, killed nine people.

This story was updated to include Napa County's Atlas Fire, which killed six people, as one of those that will not be the subject of prosecution.

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