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PG&E settles Zogg Fire case for $50 million

In exchange, criminal charges including four counts of manslaughter, were dropped — though doing so didn't make the Shasta County DA happy.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Almost three years after a downed power line sparked the Zogg Fire, which ravaged Northern California’s rugged Shasta County and killed four people, a Shasta County judge has dismissed manslaughter charges against utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric in exchange for a $50 million settlement.

PG&E, which supplies power to some 16 million residents in northern and central California, will pay $45 million to local organizations assisting local recovery efforts and emergency services. Another $5 million will be paid to Shasta County.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett agreed to drop all remaining criminal charges against PG&E, putting a lid on the final pending criminal case stemming from numerous wildfires in recent years that burned up hundreds of thousands of acres and killed more than 30 people. The district attorney, however, said she was disappointed with the decision.

“This resolution does not make me happy,” said Bridgett. “Taking PG&E to trial and holding them criminally responsible was always our goal — but the tentative ruling changed our position and I am unwilling to gamble with the safety of Shasta County. I have a responsibility to the community and needed to secure what I can for all the citizens to prevent future wildfires, prevent future deaths and devastation, and to be as prepared as our county can be if another one occurs.”

In that April 13 tentative ruling, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Daniel Flynn found PG&E could not have disregarded the risk caused by the source of the 56,000-acre wildfire — a pine tree which had fallen on a PG&E power line — because the tree hadn’t been identified as a potential danger by the utility before the disaster.

“Because PG&E was not actually aware of the danger the offending tree posed, it was not possible for PG&E to have disregarded that known risk,” Flynn wrote. “Having failed to provide any evidence that PG&E had failed to exercise the recognized standard of care, it likewise is this court’s conclusion that PG&E was not reckless in failing to identify the offending tree as a danger.”

In a statement, PG&E pointed out that multiple inspections had been carried out in the area before the fire but “there was no evidence that PG&E's multiple inspections fell below the industry standard of care, and there also was no evidence that a risk involving the tree was visible before the fire.”

Of the settlement, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said, "The agreement reflects our continuing commitment to making it right and making it safe. We stand behind our thousands of trained and experienced coworkers and contractors working every day to keep Californians safe. We feel strongly that those good-faith judgments are not criminal.”

The utility said it has committed to additional efforts in Shasta County to contain the risks of further wildfires including implementation of new systems for vegetation management in areas of high fire risk; the installation of line sensor devices improving “the ability to locate faults on circuits;” and the establishment of an independent monitor which will report regularly to the Shasta County District Attorney’s office on the utility’s progress.

Much of Shasta County was evacuated during the fire, which spread quickly from 100 acres on the morning of Sept. 27, 2020, to 7,000 acres by that evening. The following day, the fire had more than doubled in size, burning some 15,000 acres. By the time the fire was fully contained on Oct. 13, it had consumed 56,338 acres in both Shasta and Tehama counties.

The blaze also destroyed 204 buildings and killed four Shasta County residents. Two of the victims, 8-year-old Fela McLeod and her mother, 45-year-old Alaina McLeod, died trying to escape the flames in a vehicle. The other two victims, Karin King, 79, and Kenneth Vosen, 52, were found nearby.

Categories / Criminal, Energy, Regional

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