PG&E Pleads Guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter in Deadly Camp Fire

A home burns during the Camp fire in Paradise on November 8, 2018. (Josh Edelson/AFP-Getty Images)

PG&E said Monday that it is pleading guilty to 85 criminal counts in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, a blaze that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise.

In a statement, the company announced an agreement with the Butte County District Attorney's Office to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire.

Under the agreement, PG&E will pay the maximum $3.48 million fine as well as $500,000 to the district attorney's office and Consumer Protection Trust Fund to reimburse expenses related to the investigation.

PG&E and the Camp Fire

Both the Butte County Superior Court and federal court overseeing PG&E's bankruptcy case must approve the plea deal. It includes an agreement by the utility to spend as much as $15 million over the next five years to provide water to county residents impacted by the fire's destruction of a canal in the area.

"What we're looking at is a modicum of justice to the community for what has happened — just the horribleness of what happened to our community," Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Monday after the plea agreement was announced. The indictment in the case remains under seal.

"This community has been through a great deal," Ramsey added. " ... And it is our sincere hope that this rather extraordinary indictment and the even more extraordinary agreement to plead to 84 counts of manslaughter will send a clear message that this shall not happen again."

PG&E said it accepts responsibility for the catastrophe.

"We cannot change the devastation or ever forget the loss of life that occurred," PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said in a written statement. " ... Our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident."

One of the thousands of people who lost their homes said Monday she believes the guilty plea lets PG&E off the hook.

"We lost nearly everything," said Patti Savage, who now lives in Chico. "Our town. Our belongings. Some of us our lives. And they get a slap on the hand."

She said she doubts the outcome will prevent future tragedies.

"This isn't going to stop them," Savage said.

Ramsey said his office spent the weekend reaching out to the families of deceased victims to tell them about the plea agreement.

He said the final agreement includes 84, not 85, counts of involuntary manslaughter because there was "speculation" that one person died by suicide as the fire approached.

"We could not show beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was a result of the fire," Ramsey said.

The Camp Fire began before dawn the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, when a piece of hardware on a high-voltage transmission tower snapped.

The failure of that hardware — a "C-hook" that investigators found was badly worn — allowed an electrified cable to swing against the steel transmission tower causing an arc that threw sparks into surrounding vegetation.

Whipped by high winds, the resulting fire burned out of control almost instantly and raced across hillsides and canyons into Paradise and the neighboring communities of Concow and Magalia.

The firestorm trapped many of its victims — 50 of whom ranged between the ages of 70 and 96 — in their homes. Others died as they tried to drive away or run from the inferno.

PG&E's leading role in the tragedy came to light immediately.

The day after the fire began, PG&E reported it experienced a problem with the high-voltage line that sparked the blaze. Cal Fire investigators ruled last May that the utility's equipment touched off the fire.

A separate probe by the California Public Utilities Commission found that for decades PG&E had overlooked critical maintenance problems on the transmission line that sparked the blaze.

Butte County District Attorney Ramsey said he was unable to charge any individual PG&E employees in the criminal case because the equipment that failed and triggered the fire was close to a century old.

"Over the past 50 years, scores of PG&E employees would have been in a position to observe the wear (on the C-hook), but none did," he said. "So it would be impossible to prove any one person was negligent. Officers (of the company) are only liable if they personally participated in the act or personally authorized the crime."

The Camp Fire came just 13 months after a series of devastating blazes sparked by the utility's equipment.

In October 2017, PG&E power lines sparked a series of fires across counties in the North Bay and beyond.

Two months after the Camp Fire, in January 2019, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection. The utility is striving to exit bankruptcy by June 30 and on Friday announced a key agreement with Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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PG&E is also on felony probation in federal criminal court for a 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes in the Peninsula suburb.

It's unclear how this plea will impact that case: One of the chief conditions of that probation is that the company not violate any other local, state or federal laws.

PG&E's guilty plea in another Butte County case was one of the factors that led to U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup to impose new conditions of probation against the company last year.

In that case, which involved a 200-acre fire that started just outside the town of Paradise in October 2017, the utility admitted it had violated a state law that sets minimum clearance distances between power lines and surrounding vegetation.

PG&E settled the case with Ramsey's office and agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine just a month before its equipment touched off the Camp Fire.

KQED's Dan Brekke contributed to this report.