PG&E Corp. is facing criminal charges again, this time in connection with last year’s fatal Zogg Fire in Shasta County.
The Shasta County district attorney, Stephanie Bridgett, said Friday that her office filed 31 felony and misdemeanor charges against California’s largest utility, including four counts of manslaughter — one count for each of the four people who died when the fire broke out in September 2020.
“We have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is criminally liable for the ignition of the Zogg Fire and the deaths and destruction it caused,” she said at a press conference.
The fire began when a tree came into contact with a power line; Bridgett said the tree had been marked for removal two years earlier. The fire burned 56,388 acres and destroyed 204 buildings.
“They failed to do their legal duty,” she said.
PG&E pleaded guilty to 85 counts of manslaughter after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed most of Paradise — the deadliest wildfire in California history. The company paid a fine of $4 million — and the judge said he wishes he could have exacted a more severe penalty under the law.
Bridgett acknowledged that her indictment won’t yield a prison term but she said it was necessary to hold the company accountable for its “repeated pattern of causing wildfires.”
The charges aren’t a surprise; Bridgett announced in late July that she planned to bring a criminal case against PG&E.
Earlier this year the Sonoma County DA filed criminal charges against PG&E over the 2019 Kincade Fire, which didn’t kill anyone but prompted the evacuation of nearly 200,000 residents.
Prosecutors also investigating how Dixie Fire started
Separately, Bridgett and several other district attorneys are investigating whether PG&E should face criminal charges in connection with this year’s Dixie Fire — the second largest in state history. Investigators believe the fire may have been started when a tree came into contact with PG&E power equipment.
PG&E was driven into bankruptcy by the Camp Fire and several others. It successfully emerged from Chapter 11 last year and has been spending billions on enhanced tree-trimming programs and other measures designed to reduce wildfire risk. It also overhauled its leadership at the insistence of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Bridgett said she doesn’t think the utility has learned any lessons. “It appears that they haven’t changed,” she said.
In a tape-recorded video message released by the company, Chief Executive Patti Poppe said “my heart aches” for the death and damages but contested the DA’s accusations.
While PG&E accepts Cal Fire’s determination that the Zogg Fire was caused by a tree making contact with a power line, “we did not commit a crime,” she said.
Dressed in a yellow safety vest and standing in front of a utility truck, Poppe said two arborists inspected the tree before the fire and both “determined the tree could stay.”
Poppe, who became CEO last November, said the company is doing everything it can to reduce fire risks.
“We are not sitting idly by,” she said.
The company believes its civil liabilities from the Zogg Fire could reach $375 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in July.
PG&E also was charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of “negligent emission of air pollution” over the smoke and ash generated by the Zogg Fire. In addition, the company was charged with three felony counts of recklessness in connection with three smaller fires in the county — last year’s Daniel and Ponder fires and the Woody Fire a month ago.