No criminal charges for PG&E in 2017 Northern California wildfires, prosecutors say

A firefighter burns vegetation to prevent flames from crossing a highway in 2017.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will not face criminal charges in the Northern California wildfires that killed more than 40 people in October 2017, authorities said.

The Sonoma County district attorney’s office said in a statement Tuesday that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the utility acted with reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires.

Prosecutors in Napa, Humboldt and Lake counties also declined to file charges after an “extensive” review of the cases, during which they consulted with the state attorney general’s office, the statement said.

In a court filing in December, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office had said the utility could be charged with murder or involuntary manslaughter if authorities determine that recent deadly California wildfires ignited as a result of the “reckless” operation or maintenance of power lines.


The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that the utility’s equipment caused many of the massive wine country wildfires and referred the cases to prosecutors in each county.

Of the fires that originated in Sonoma, Cal Fire concluded that the utility’s equipment caused the Adobe, Norrbom, Pocket, and Pythian/Oakmont fires, but not the Nuns or Thirty Seven fires, nor the Tubbs fire that started in Napa.

Prosecutors said they would have had to prove that the utility acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees, which would have been particularly difficult because physical evidence in the case was burned in the fires, the statement said.

The utility remains on probation in a criminal case stemming from the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline blast in 2010, which killed eight people. PG&E was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $3 million fine in that case.


PG&E has faced intense criticism and at least 20 lawsuits on behalf of families, businesses and trusts that allege the utility allowed its equipment to spark last year’s Camp fire, the deadliest wildfire on record in California history.

One lawsuit points to a small metal hook on an electrical transmission tower as the cause in the Camp fire, which killed 86 people and displaced up to 50,000 more in Butte County. When the hook failed, the suit alleges, an uninsulated wire touched the tower, caused sparks and ignited the blaze.

Another lawsuit blasts a corporate culture that allegedly places “reputation above public safety” along with advertising that “promotes a false and misleading picture” of Northern California’s electricity supply.

Other suits blame the general decay of the region’s electrical infrastructure and the failure to trim trees and brush that grew too close to poles and power lines.


Twitter: @AleneTchek