PG&E charged with manslaughter in Shasta County fire that killed 4
The Shasta County district attorney’s office has filed 31 criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric for its role in the 2020 Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings, officials said Friday.
The charges include 11 felonies and 20 misdemeanors, as well as multiple enhancements, Dist. Atty. Stephanie Bridgett said. The filing includes manslaughter charges for the deaths.
“We have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Pacific Gas & Electric Company is criminally liable for their reckless ignition of the Zogg fire and the deaths and destruction that it caused,” Bridgett said.
The charges come days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the fire, which sparked Sept. 27, 2020, and burned through more than 56,000 acres before crews contained it about two weeks later.
The blaze ripped through rural communities in Shasta and Tehama counties, killing Karen King, 79; Kenneth Vossen, 52; Alaina Rowe McLeod, 46, and her 8-year-old daughter, Feyla McLeod.
As the fire burned, investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection seized PG&E equipment and determined that the fire had been caused by “a pine tree contacting electrical distribution lines owned and operated” by the utility north of the community of Igo.
PG&E said at the time that it had fully cooperated with the investigation. In a statement issued Friday, CEO Patti Poppe disputed the criminal charges.
“We’ve accepted Cal Fire’s determination, reached earlier this year, that a tree contacted our electric line and started the Zogg fire,” Poppe said. “We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime.”
Officials say last year’s Zogg fire in Northern California was sparked when tree branches came into contact with Pacific Gas & Electric power lines.
In July, Bridgett said the utility was criminally liable for its role in sparking the fire and that she was working to determine the nature of the charges.
Friday’s filing was spurred by PG&E’s “statutory and regulatory duties to mitigate fire risks by removing hazardous trees from around their electrical lines,” she said. “In this case, they failed to perform their legal duties.”
Corporations can be held criminally liable for the crimes of their directors, agents and employees, she said. The filing also includes felony arson charges for the utility’s alleged role in other Shasta County fires over the last year and a half.
Possible penalties include fines, fees and the ability for the court to order remedial and corrective measures, Bridgett said.
Poppe said PG&E already has resolved many victim claims arising from the Zogg fire, along with claims by Shasta and Tehama counties, and was “working hard to resolve the remaining claims.”
She also noted that climate change and unprecedented drought in California have “forever changed the relationship between trees and power lines,” and said the agency had established new standards to reduce risk to communities, including investments in vegetation management, tree trimming and removing and burying power lines.
“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,” Poppe said.
“Let’s be clear, my co-workers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that.”
The lawsuits filed on behalf of 200 people allege the utility’s equipment not only started the Dixie fire but that PG&E was aware of the risk.
The latest charges are not the first time PG&E has been held responsible for its role in the state’s wildfires. Multibillion-dollar legal liabilities from 2018’s Camp fire and other blazes pushed the utility into bankruptcy in January 2019.
PG&E eventually pleaded guilty to 84 deaths from the Camp fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history.
Though it emerged from bankruptcy the following year, PG&E has continued to face legal challenges. In July, the utility said its equipment may have sparked the Dixie fire in Plumas County, which became the second-largest wildfire in California history.
The power line suspected of sparking that fire had been set to be buried, but the work was not completed before a Douglas fir fell onto the line and blew two fuses.
The Dixie fire burned through more than 960,000 acres and leveled the town of Greenville. More than 200 victims of the fire are suing PG&E.
Friday’s action out of Shasta County brings yet another mark against the beleaguered utility, which has vowed to take more safety measures to prevent similar disasters.
“You may wonder, Why [file] criminal charges against a corporation that can’t go to jail,” Bridgett said. “Well, because PG&E has a history with repeated patterns of causing wildfires that is not getting better. It’s only getting worse.”
Times staff writer Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.
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