PG&E Reaches $55 Million Deal to Avoid Criminal Charges in Counties Ravaged by Recent Wildfires

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A PG&E utility truck passes by a house in smoke-filled air. A banner on the house says: 'God bless our troops and firefighters.'
A PG&E truck passes by a home near Quincy during the Dixie Fire on July 26, 2021. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation's largest utility, has agreed to pay more than $55 million to avoid criminal prosecution for two major wildfires sparked by its aging Northern California power lines, and submit to five years of oversight.

The company didn't acknowledge any wrongdoing in the deals announced Monday with prosecutors in six counties ravaged by last year's Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire. The utility still faces criminal charges for the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County that killed four people.

The two civil settlements are designed to accelerate payments to hundreds of people whose homes were destroyed so they can start rebuilding more quickly than those who suffered devastating losses in 2017 and 2018 blazes that also were ignited by PG&E's equipment. Those fires prompted the utility to negotiate settlements that included $13.5 billion earmarked for victims — money that still hasn't been completely distributed.

The deal also thrusts the utility back into five years of independent oversight, similar to the criminal probation it faced after being convicted in 2016 of six felony crimes linked to a 2010 natural gas explosion that blew up a San Bruno neighborhood and killed eight people.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the oversight was the biggest accomplishment to come from the deal.

“We have limited tools and criminal law to deal with corporations, and what we were able to do here was to get a five-year agreement that they will be overseen, that there will be an independent monitor, and that they will have to meet certain benchmarks," she said Monday.

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All told, PG&E has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires since 2017 that have destroyed more than 23,000 homes and businesses and killed upward of 100 people.

PG&E's federal probation ended in late January, prompting concerns from the federal judge who tried to force the utility to reduce fire risks by requiring more maintenance and reporting. U.S. District Judge William Alsup warned that PG&E remained a “continuing menace to California” and urged state prosecutors to try to rein in the company that provides power to 16 million people.

In a joint statement covering five of the six counties that settled, prosecutors said PG&E will be “essentially on a five-year probation” to be overseen by Filsinger Energy Partners, which already acts as a safety monitor for California power regulators.

PG&E will have to underwrite the federal monitor’s costs, up to $15 million annually, in addition to the $55 million in other payments and penalties that the utility expects to incur in the settlements.

“Like Ronald Reagan said many years ago, trust but verify,” said Butte County DA Mike Ramsey. “This is our verification tool, that independent safety monitor.”

As part of the separate million Sonoma County deal, Ravitch agreed to drop the 33 criminal charges she filed last year that accused PG&E of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash from the Kincade Fire that began in October 2019.

Fire officials said a PG&E transmission line sparked the fire, which destroyed 374 buildings in wine country and caused nearly 200,000 people to flee, the largest evacuation in the county's history.

Ravitch said state laws that limit punishment against a corporation to probation and fines helped motivate the settlements. She said if PG&E had been successfully prosecuted in the Sonoma County case, it would have paid a fine of just $9.4 million, most of which would have gone to the state.

Instead, the county will now receive $20.25 million earmarked for nonprofits that help people affected by wildfires and for Santa Rosa Junior College so that it can expand fire safety and vegetation management programs. It also will reimburse the DA's office for the costs of investigating and litigating the case, Ravitch said.

“There are those who will say that PG&E bought its way out of a criminal prosecution,” she said. “I look at it as doing the best that we could under the circumstances. I’m just a prosecutor in Sonoma County. If I had a magic wand and I could wave it, maybe PG&E wouldn’t exist anymore.”

Prosecutors in the other five counties were exploring criminal charges in last year’s Dixie Fire — the second largest blaze in California’s history — before cutting the deal they said would yield far larger payouts than would a courtroom trial. Because there were no deaths in the Dixie Fire, prosecutors said the utility would have paid a maximum penalty of about $330,000 if it had been found guilty in a criminal case.

The settlement for the Dixie Fire was made by district attorneys in Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte counties, which will collectively receive nearly $30 million.

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Even when PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for those killed in the 2018 Camp Fire, the company was fined just $3.5 million.

In a statement, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said the utility welcomed the chance to be more transparent — and ultimately more accountable — for its operations.

“We are committed to doing our part, and we look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it right and make it safe,” Poppe said.

The money that PG&E will pay as part of the settlements will account for just a sliver of its anticipated liabilities in the Kincade, Zogg and Dixie fires. As of Dec. 31, PG&E estimated it likely will be held responsible for at least $2.3 billion in losses stemming from those wildfires. Some of the estimated $1.15 billion in damages caused by the Dixie Fire may be paid by a state-backed insurance fund that California lawmakers created after PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019.

Last year's Dixie Fire burned nearly 1 million acres in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties and destroyed more than 1,300 homes and other buildings. The blaze started on July 13, 2021, when a tree hit electrical distribution lines west of a dam in the Sierra Nevada, according to investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Although her office participated in the Dixie Fire settlement, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said she will continue to pursue a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people in her county.

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KQED's Alex Emslie contributed reporting to this story.