California utility to pay $55m but admit no wrongdoing in 2 devastating wildfires

Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to pay more than US$55 million to avoid criminal charges over two major wildfires sparked by aging power lines in Northern California owned by the nation’s largest utility, the US announced Monday. prosecutors.

PG&E does not admit wrongdoing in two settlements reached with prosecutors for last year’s Dixie Fire – one of the largest wildfires in California history – and 2019’s Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. The agreements speed up the payment of damages to the hundreds of people whose homes were destroyed.

PG&E will also submit to five years of supervision by an independent monitor similar to the supervision it faced during five years of criminal probation after being convicted of misconduct that contributed to its natural gas explosion that killed eight people in 2010.

Pacific Gas & Electric has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires since 2017 that have wiped out more than 23,000 homes and businesses and killed more than 100 people. It had previously reached settlements with more than 25.5 billion wildfire casualties.

The Dixie Fire has burned nearly 3,900 square kilometers in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties and destroyed more than 1,300 homes and other buildings. The blaze was caused by a tree that struck power distribution lines west of a dam in the Sierra Nevada, where the blaze began on July 13, 2021, according to investigators from the Department of Forestry and California Fire Protection.

The Dixie fire settlement was reached by district attorneys in Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte counties, who had not yet filed charges.

A Buddha statue stands amid the rubble of a home destroyed by the so-called Kincade Fire on October 28, 2019 in Calistoga, California. The settlement announced Monday will help expedite payments to property owners affected by this wildfire as well as the Dixie fire. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Sonoma County prosecutors filed 33 criminal charges last year accusing PG&E of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash from the 2019 Kincade Fire.

Fire officials said a PG&E transmission line started the blaze, which destroyed 374 buildings in wine country and caused nearly 100,000 people to flee as it burned over 311 square kilometres. It was the largest evacuation in county history, prosecutors said, including the entire towns of Healdsburg, Windsor and Geyserville.

The utility’s federal probation ended in late January, raising concerns about the judge who had used his powers to oversee the utility and force it to reduce fire hazards posed by its crumbling power lines.

As PG&E emerged from probation, U.S. District Judge William Alsup warned that PG&E remained an “ongoing threat to California” and urged state prosecutors to try to rein in the company.

Check out some of the devastation of the Dixie Fire of 2021: