REDDING, Calif. - Shasta County’s top prosecutor on Friday charged Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with manslaughter and other crimes for the 2020 Zogg Fire and a series of other fires that started in the Northern California county in the last year and a half.
District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said she wanted to hold PG&E accountable for their role in the deadly fire.
Bridgett said she has proof to show that the Zogg Fire started with a tree that PG&E should have removed in 2018, but had been left in place. The tree's trunk had significant physical defects from a grapevine and the gray pine ultimately fell on an electrical line during a windstorm on Sept. 27, 2020, the prosecution contends.
Aside from these latest criminal charges, Shasta, Tehama and Lassen counties have sued the utility for negligence, arguing that PG&E had failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier.
Bridgett announced the charges three days before the anniversary of the fire.
"I have determined that we have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Pacific Gas & d Electric Company is criminally liable for their reckless ignition of the Zogg Fire and the deaths and destruction that it caused," she said at a news conference. "While criminal prosecutions of corporations is rare. One of the primary reasons to charge a corporation criminal is a finding that illegal behavior is widespread and serious. Their failure was reckless and was criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people."
She said her office is alleging 31 counts, which includes 11 felonies and 20 misdemeanors and span from involuntary manslaughter to environmental crimes. The manslaughter charges are for the deaths of Karen King, 79; Kenneth Vossen, 52; Alaina Rowe McLeod, 46, and her 8-year-old daughter, Feyla McLeod.
She said her office is also charging PG&E for the Daniel Fire, started July 28, 2020; the Ponder Fire started Oct. 19, 2020, and the Woody Fire started Aug. 19, 2021 – all of which started in Shasta County in the last two years.
PG&E is already facing criminal charges from the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County and was on probation from the deadly San Bruno explosion when a 30-inch pipe exploded into flames killing eight people. Bridgett and several other district attorneys are investigating whether PG&E should face criminal charges in connection with this year’s Dixie Fire. Investigators believe the fire may have been started when a tree came into contact with PG&E power equipment.
The charges weren't a surprise. Bridgett hinted she would do so in July.
In a 2-page statement, PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said the utility has no argument with Cal Fire's determination that a tree contacted its electric line and started the Zogg Fire.
"We accept that conclusion," Pope said. "But we did not commit a crime."
Poppe said that climate change and unprecedented drought "have forever changed the relationship between trees and power lines."
For example, she said, the tree that started the Zogg Fire is one of over 8 million trees within striking distance to PG&E lines.
She also said that between October 2018 and last year’s Zogg Fire, two trained arborists determined the tree in question could stay and PG&E trimmed or removed over 5,000 trees on the route in question. PG&E will remove 30,000 more trees and trim another 1 million this year.
Over the summer, PG&E announced plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in an effort to prevent its fraying grid from sparking wildfires when electrical equipment collides with millions of trees and other vegetation across the drought-stricken state.
The cost was put at $15 billion, most of which will likely be covered by customers.
"This was a tragedy, four people died," Poppe said. "And my coworkers are working so hard to prevent fires and the catastrophic losses that come with them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not right. Failing to prevent this fire is not a crime."
Poppe, who was hired in January at the embattled utility, acknowledged she is new to this environment. But that doesn't mean she doesn't care.
"We are all devastated by the effects of wildfire here in California," she said. "I hope my heart never becomes hardened to the devastation that catastrophic wildfire can cause.
PG&E, which has an estimated 16 million customers in central and Northern California, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019. It emerged from bankruptcy last summer and negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with some wildfire victims.
In July, PG&E said believes its civil liabilities from the Zogg Fire could reach $375 million, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Bridgett said she hope the criminal charges would make a difference.
"It's time that they change and change does not come by doing nothing," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.