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.