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PG&E faces manslaughter charges tied to 2020 California wildfire

The Shasta County district attorney announced criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric Friday related to the Zogg Fire (shown) in Northern California. Photo courtesy of ccc.ca.gov/Wikimedia Commons
The Shasta County district attorney announced criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric Friday related to the Zogg Fire (shown) in Northern California. Photo courtesy of ccc.ca.gov/Wikimedia Commons

Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Prosecutors have filed criminal charges, including manslaughter, against Pacific Gas and Electric tied to a California wildfire last year.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced Friday the manslaughter charges among 11 felonies and 20 misdemeanors tied to the 56,000 acre Zogg Fire that left four people dead and destroyed 204 buildings near Redding, Calif., in 2020.

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Bridgett told reporters the investigation showed the gray pine that fell on the line sparking the Zogg Fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's finding earlier this year, had visible "significant defects," and had been marked for removal in 2018.

"PG&E as a utility has both statutory and regulatory duties to mitigate fire risks by removing hazardous trees from around their electrical lines," Bridgett said. "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."

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Bridgett added that the case her office filed Friday is the latest in a series of prosecutions.

In April, Sonoma County district attorneys filed five felony and 28 misdemeanor charges against PG&E linked to the Kincade Fire that burned 120 square miles in Sonoma County north of San Francisco, including recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury.

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Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 Camp Fire in California, acknowledging its neglected equipment sparked the fire that ripped through the town of Paradise in Northern California.

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PG&E has also been on probation since it was found guilty in 2016 for safety violations in the 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people the San Francisco Bay area.

The Zogg Fire was sparked two months after PG&E emerged from bankruptcy and put $5.4 billion in cash and more than 22% of its stock into a trust for victims of wildfires the utility's equipment caused.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection due to wildfires in 2019.

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"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," Bridgett said during a news conference Friday. "My office has made such findings."

PG&E said it has "fully cooperated" with the Cal Fire investigation of the Zogg Fire.

"We've accepted Cal Fire's determination, reached earlier this year, that a tree contacted our electric line and started the Zogg Fire," CEO Patti Poppe, who joined the company in January, said in a statement. "We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime."

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She also pointed out that between October 2018 and the 2020 Zogg Fire, two trained arborists determined the tree in question could stay, and highlighted some things the company has been working on to prevent fires.

Among the highlights, Poppe said PG&E was investing $1.4 billion this year on vegetation management, and installing remote and micro grids to eliminate the wires altogether.

"We're putting everything we've got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk," Poppe said. "Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this ... Let's be clear, my coworkers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that."

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Poppe also said that PG&E has already resolved many claims from the Zogg Fire, and other claims from Shasta and Tehama counties, and will work hard to resolve remaining claims.

While the cause of the Dixie Fire in Butte, Plumas, Tehama, Shasta and Lassen counties, sparked on July 13 is still under investigation, according to Cal Fire, Pacific Gas and Electric company may have caused it according to a report, by the utility submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission nearly a week later. The Dixie Fire has burned through 963,276 acres with 94% contained, a Cal Fire update Saturday morning shows.

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