PG&E Faces Criminal Charges Over 2019 Wine Country Fire

The Sonoma County DA accuses the utility giant of negligence in an October 2019 wildfire that left six firefighters injured and destroyed hundreds of structures.

Embers fly across a roadway as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of Sonoma County, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) — The Sonoma County District Attorney filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric on Tuesday, saying the utility’s neglect sparked the 2019 Kincade Fire that scorched approximately 77,000 acres, razed 174 buildings and prompted the evacuation of 200,000 residents. 

Jill Ravitch, the top cop in Sonoma County, charged PG&E with 33 counts in a criminal complaint filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, including five felonies stemming the wildfire that injured six firefighters and incurred nearly $600 million in insurance costs. 

About 200,000 residents from Healdsburg, Windsor, Santa Rosa and Geyserville fled their homes, representing the largest evacuation in county history. 

The fire sparked on Oct. 23, 2019 near Geyserville in the Geyers geothermal region near the Mayacamas Mountains in the northern reach of the county. Cal Fire investigated the cause of the fire and identified faulty transmission lines as the source last July but did not publicly release the report

A PG&E electric transmission tower with a view of a jumper cable, one of which failed near the time and place where the Kincade Fire started in October 2019. (PG&E photo)

Instead, it took the unprecedented move to provide the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office with the report for further consideration.

“Since that time, we have been working with Cal Fire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire,” Ravitch said in a statement Tuesday. ”I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings.” 

PG&E disputed Ravitch’s characterizations of the events that led to the fire in a lengthy statement released on Tuesday. 

“In the spirit of working to do what’s right for the victims, we will accept Cal Fire’s finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the fire, even though we have not had access to the agency’s report or the evidence it gathered,” the company said. “However, we do not believe there was any crime here. We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system.”

The Sonoma County DA filed numerous charges related to negligent maintenance of the transmission lines in question, but also charged the utility with environmental crimes due to 16 days of poor air quality for residents. 

Two of the felony counts, in particular, were brought on behalf of two children who inhaled large amounts of wildfire smoke and ash as a result of the Kincade Fire. 

The fire broke out despite power shut-offs in the greater Sonoma County area that PG&E says are necessary to prevent the type of large-scale fires that have ravaged the Golden State in recent years. 

The Wine Country Fires of 2017, which also affected residents of Sonoma County, kicked off a period of massive wildfires in California that have killed hundreds, injured many more and resulted in billions in recovery costs while prompting routine power blackouts for residents that live in fire-prone areas. 

Most of the half dozen fires that broke out during the initial firestorm in 2017 were sparked by PG&E transmission lines that either failed or made contact with surrounding trees during windstorms. 

The Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive fire in history, has been traced to a faulty transmission line maintained by PG&E. That fire killed 85 people and caused $16 billion in damage while destroying a large portion of the mountain town of Paradise in Butte County. 

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