Greenville, CA

PG&E pleads not guilty for catastrophic 2020 California wildfire

Jano le Roux
Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

Prosecutors announced that Pacific Gas & Electric pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other counts after their equipment triggered a wildfire in Northern California two years ago that killed four people and damaged hundreds of houses.

According to reports, it took more than 10 hours from the time the fire started at 6:48 a.m. on July 13 when a 65-foot Douglas fir fell and hit PG&E conductors until the incident was detected by a PG&E maintenance worker at 4:55 p.m. It was “too large for him to contain” at that time.

The 963,309-acre fire was the state’s second-largest in history. According to the report, the fire raged over federal, state, and private areas in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, and Shasta counties until it was extinguished in late October.

The fire damaged hundreds of buildings and obliterated most of Greenville.

To avoid criminal punishment, PG&E reached a $55 million agreement with district attorneys in the five Sacramento Valley counties affected by the Dixie fire in April.

Instead, the business agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in penalties and charity donations, as well as hire 80 to 100 workers in those counties to help with tree pruning and equipment inspections as it vowed to do better. A consultancy company engaged by the utilities will oversee the personnel.

The hours it took for the fire to be noticed have been the subject of earlier examination, including a damning assessment from a federal court managing PG&E’s felony probation in the tragic 2010 natural-gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.

In a response to the CAL FIRE’s Report on 2021 Dixie Fire in Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, and Tehama Counties a PG&E press release said: “PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the hometowns we serve.”

They further outlined that they’ve received a copy of the CAL FIRE Dixie Fire report and that they “believe reflects more of the same information already publicly available.”

They explained that they “previously shared an extensive amount of information on the fire” and stand by their position that they “acted as a prudent operator.”

The response also makes it clear that PG&E took two steps shortly after the fire occurred to protect their “hometowns”.

They’ve accelerated their “operational response practices in high fire-risk areas[,] requiring [a] response to any fault or outage on our electric system within 60 minutes or less.”

It has also implemented “Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS) to rapidly and automatically shut off power when objects such as a tree or branch fall onto a line.”

PG&E also maintained that the tree was “alive, vital, and growing vertically at the time of the failure,” as it had previously said. In his analysis for Cal Fire, arborist Joe McNeil found that the tree had previously been injured and decaying, which would have been “noticeable at the ground level by inspectors pre-fire, without remarkable effort.”

Cal Fire investigators also highlighted that other major and destructive wildfires had erupted in the same region in recent years, including the catastrophic Camp fire in 2018, which was also tied to PG&E infrastructure.

PG&E has also agreed to develop a program in which Dixie fire victims who have lost their homes may file claims for expedited evaluation, approval, and compensation payout.

After wildfires started by its electrical infrastructure killed more than 100 people in 2017 and 2018, the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 to safeguard itself from tens of billions of dollars in possible liabilities. Officials promised it would be a “reimagined utility” when it emerged from bankruptcy in 2020.

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