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California

Utility may have violated probation for its role in deadly California wildfires, federal prosecutors say

PULGA, CALIFORNIA--NOV. 11, 2018--The investigation continues into the origin of the Camp fire, whic
The investigation continues into the origin of the Camp fire, which some say started with a faulty PG&E wire in Pulga, Calif.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Federal prosecutors said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. may have violated the terms of its probation in a 2010 criminal case for its role in igniting deadly wildfires that ravaged Northern California’s wine country last year.

In a court filing Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office said state investigators found evidence that the utility violated state law in 11 fires — including the Atlas fire that killed six people — that broke out in October 2017.

“These facts, specifically if PG&E started a wildfire by reckless operation or maintenance of its power lines, may serve as a basis for” the judge to find that the utility violated probation, federal prosecutors said.

They added that they don’t have enough information on the utility’s potential role in this year’s Camp fire in Butte County — the deadliest wildfire on record in state history — to determine whether it amounted to a probation violation.

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The embattled utility acknowledged in a separate court filing that it could face additional legal trouble if found responsible for igniting the blazes. It’s already facing heavy scrutiny and a slew of lawsuits.

“If it were determined that a wildfire had been started by reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines, that would, if the specific circumstances gave rise to a violation of federal, state or local statutes, implicate the requirements” of its probation, the company’s lawyers said in the filing.

They pointed out the utility’s ongoing cooperation with state investigations probing its role in wildfires, and said that out of the 315 wildfires reported by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2017 in the utility’s service area, 40 of them were allegedly linked to PG&E equipment.

The utility has not admitted any wrongdoing in the Camp fire, which started the morning of Nov. 8 and within hours overtook three mountain communities and displaced up to 50,000 people in Butte County. Eighty-six people were killed.

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While the cause of the Camp fire is still under investigation, state investigators are probing whether problems on a transmission line ignited the blaze and have identified two potential ignition points located near PG&E equipment. The company has said it found bullet-riddled equipment and felled branches on power lines elsewhere within the fire’s massive footprint.

The company’s lawyers noted in their filing that a utility worker was one of the first to alert authorities to the blaze.

The filings came at the request of U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility’s probation in a criminal case stemming from the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline blast, which killed eight people in 2010.

PG&E was found guilty of several crimes in that case, including obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board probe, and sentenced to five years’ probation. It was also ordered to pay a $3-million fine. Under the terms of its probation, the utility was not supposed to commit any other crimes.

Alsup also asked California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office to weigh in on potential criminal charges the utility could face in connection with any wildfire since its sentencing.

Becerra’s office said last week that the utility could be charged with a range of crimes, including murder or involuntary manslaughter, if authorities determine that recent wildfires ignited as a result of the reckless operation or maintenance of power lines.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek

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