PG&E cleared of criminal charges in 8 2017 blazes as fire officials say SCE sparked Thomas Fire
- Four district attorneys in Northern California said Tuesday they will not pursue criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for its alleged role in eight blazes that struck in October 2017.
- The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) had issued a report last summer, determining electrical equipment as the cause of 12 wildfires in Northern California during the "October 2017 Fire Siege." However, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch released a statement that "insufficient evidence" exists to reach the "standard necessary to sustain criminal charges."
- On Wednesday, the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) announced the result of an investigation into the Thomas Fire from December 2017, determining that Southern California Edison's (SCE) power lines and equipment were responsible for two separate ignitions. The incident is the second largest wildfire in the state's history, according to Cal Fire.
As California's wildfire seasons lengthen and intensify, the state's investor-owned utilities are increasingly facing the possibility of criminal charges for neglecting maintenance of vegetation, such as removing dead and dying trees near their power lines.
District attorneys from Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt and Lake Counties each determined "after an extensive review" not to file criminal charges against PG&E, despite Cal Fire's determination that the utility's equipment caused numerous wildfires in the counties.
"The cases that were referred for prosecution all required proof that PG&E acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees," according to the Sonoma press statement, but physical evidence was destroyed by the fires.
Four of the fires — Adobe, Norrbom, Pocket and Pythian/Oakmont — were in Sonoma. The Atlas and Patrick fires were in Napa, with the Sulphur Fire in Lake County and Blue Fire in Humboldt County. With respect to the Atlas fire, a trial had been scheduled to begin on Sept. 23, 2019, in the San Francisco County Superior Court, PG&E said in January.
While the criminal charges have been dropped, civil lawsuits remain. Regarding the 2017 Northern California fires, PG&E recorded about 700 complaints on behalf of 3,600 plaintiffs, according to its Jan. 14 8K filing.
In October 2018, PG&E reached a $1.5 million settlement with the district attorney of Butte County for three fires, which Cal Fire investigators alleged were caused by vegetation coming into contact with the utility's distribution lines.
Cal Fire had also determined that trees fell onto PG&E power lines to ignite fires at two locations in Mendocino County, in the Redwood Fire. The deadly blaze that resulted was recommended by Cal Fire for possible prosecution and the county's decision was not covered by Ravitch's statement.
"No reports or requests for review for possible prosecution were ever received by the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office," Mike Geniella, spokesperson for the DA office, told Utility Dive via email.
Regarding SCE's potential responsibility for the Thomas Fire, the company said Wednesday it has not determined "whether its equipment caused" the second ignition, adding that it "started at least 12 minutes prior to any issue involving SCE's system and at least 15 minutes prior to the start time indicated by VCFD in its report."
The Thomas Fire resulted in two deaths and burned more than 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.
"Notwithstanding today's [VCFD] report, a final determination on cause and responsibility will only be made through the legal process," SCE said.
The California attorney general will decide whether to bring criminal charges against SCE after reviewing the investigation.
This story was updated to include a comment from the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office.
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