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PG&E slapped with criminal charges over 2020 Zogg Fire

Criminal cases are stacking up against the utility as fire-stricken Shasta County claims PG&E caused the deaths of four people by again failing to maintain its power lines.

REDDING, Calif. (CN) — A Northern California county hit the nation’s largest utility with manslaughter and a raft of other charges Friday, just days before the first anniversary of the Zogg Fire’s ignition.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgette slapped the utility with 11 felonies and a total of 31 criminal charges, saying the county will fight to hold PG&E accountable for igniting the fire which killed four and burned considerable portions of the communities of Igo and Ono.

After reading the names of the Zogg Fire victims, Bridgette called the fire “completely preventable” and yet another deadly example of PG&E’s failure to manage its power lines.

“It’s time that they change, and change does not come by doing nothing,” Bridgette told reporters. “Those that lost loved ones need justice.”  

This past March, state investigators blamed PG&E for starting the Zogg Fire. While it doesn’t dispute the determination, the utility says it will defend the new round of criminal charges.

In a statement, CEO Patti Poppe acknowledged the utility has already resolved many civil claims tied to the fire but was adamant PG&E didn’t commit a crime.

“This was a tragedy, four people died,” Poppe said. “And my co-workers are working so hard to prevent fires and the catastrophic losses that come with them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not right. Failing to prevent this fire is not a crime.”

The fire sparked in September 2020 when a gray pine or foothill pine tree fell on a distribution line in rural Shasta County. Investigators claim the tree was potentially flagged for removal in 2018 but never taken down.

Driven by fierce autumn winds, the fire grew quickly and scorched over 56,000 acres and 204 structures in Shasta and Tehama counties in a matter of days. For the damages caused to public roads and costs stopping the fire, PG&E settled with the counties for $12 million this past spring. However, a variety of individual civil lawsuits relating to the Zogg Fire remain and the utility has informed shareholders its liabilities could total $375 million.

Friday’s charges add another layer to the utility’s web of criminal entanglements.

In June 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and received the maximum sentence, a $3.5 million fine, for its role in sparking the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. That blaze burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings, destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed at least 85 people.

PG&E is also fighting over 30 criminal charges in Sonoma County, site of the 2019 Kincade Fire that scorched approximately 77,000 acres, razed 174 buildings and prompted the evacuation of 200,000 residents. 

Like the Butte County criminal case, Friday’s charges won’t result in prison terms for any PG&E employees. But the DA said the case could end up an agent of change.

“In the last couple of years significant fires continue to be caused by PG&E,” said Bridgette. “I have not seen the change that’s needed to stop this from occurring in my and other communities.”

Bridgette noted PG&E may soon be on the hook for starting the Dixie Fire, which is still active and has burned nearly 1 million acres in Shasta and a host of other Northern California counties. She said local prosecutors are currently investigating PG&E’s potential role in the blaze, officially the second largest wildfire in recorded state history.

Along with 11 felonies, Bridgette is pursuing 20 misdemeanors against PG&E. She hopes the case will prompt civil fines and corrective measures to ensure the Zogg Fire victims don’t “die in vain.”

The indictments come as Shasta County is again confronting a major blaze near the city of Redding.

The Fawn Fire started north of Redding city limits two days ago and over 4,000 people are currently evacuated. Due to its extreme behavior and proximity to highly populated areas, the National Interagency Fire Center considers the Fawn Fire the country’s largest threat. A San Francisco Bay Area woman has been arrested on suspicion of starting that blaze.

According to Cal Fire, with months left in California’s traditional fire season 7,000 wildfires have already burned 1.9 million acres so far this year.

Follow Nick Cahill on Twitter

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