Prosecutors in Northern California filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric on Friday in connection with the deaths of four people last year in a wildfire that was linked to the utility’s equipment.
The Shasta County district attorney brought the charges — including manslaughter, along with other felonies and misdemeanors — in connection with the Zogg fire, which burned more than 56,000 acres and destroyed 204 buildings near Redding.
An investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that the fire was caused when a pine tree came into contact with electrical lines owned and operated by PG&E. PG&E said it had cooperated with the investigation.
“While criminal prosecutions of corporations is rare, one of the primary reasons to charge a corporation criminally is a finding that illegal behavior is widespread, it’s serious, it’s offensive and it’s so persuasive that the only appropriate action is criminal charges,” Stephanie A. Bridgett, district attorney for Shasta County, said at a news conference on Friday. “My office has made such findings.”
“PG&E as a utility has both statutory and regulatory duties to mitigate fire risks by removing hazardous trees from around their electrical lines,” she added. “In this case they failed to perform their legal duties. Their failure was reckless and was criminally negligent, and it resulted in the deaths of four people.”
Ms. Bridgett said the case against PG&E included felony arson charges in three other fires last year and this year. She said her office would seek penalties that could include fines, fees and remedial and corrective action.
Patricia K. Poppe, PG&E’s chief executive, who joined the company in January, said in a statement on Friday that the utility disputed the charges. “It may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime,” she said, but “we welcome our day in court.”
Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2018 Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, and was fined $3.5 million, the maximum penalty allowed under state law. The fire led the utility, which had amassed $30 billion in liability related to wildfires caused by its equipment, to file for bankruptcy protection in January 2019.
The Zogg fire was ignited two months after PG&E exited bankruptcy in July of last year. PG&E is suspected of causing three fires this year, including the Dixie fire — the second-largest blaze in California history — in July.
PG&E has been on probation since its first criminal conviction, in 2016, for a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the Bay Area city of San Bruno. The blast killed eight people.
In April, Sonoma County’s district attorney charged PG&E with five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, in connection with the Kincade fire, which damaged or destroyed more than 400 buildings and seriously injured six firefighters in 2019.
The utility has been working to rebuild its image — upgrading equipment, developing wildfire prevention programs and providing increased tree trimming — but many government leaders and residents argue that the company has fallen short. The utility has resorted to shutting off power during extreme weather, at times leaving millions of people without power for as long as a week, to prevent its equipment from causing fires.
Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose and others have urged the state to turn PG&E into a customer-owned utility. Others, like the City of San Francisco, have pressed for a government-run operation.
To help resolve some of the concerns, California created a wildfire fund last year, which has provided a backup funding source for PG&E and the state’s two other investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. The fund was designed to cover wildfire liabilities that exceed the ability of the utilities to pay for damage and to help prevent them from going into bankruptcy.
The California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing the circumstances of the Zogg fire and what responsibility PG&E had. The commission could impose fines in addition to any court penalties. Regulators fined PG&E almost $2 billion for causing wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the Camp fire.
Utilities have been required to pay criminal penalties and fines by state regulators using money from their shareholders.