Judge axes criminal charges against PG&E in 2020 wildfire

PG&E still faces steep financial obligations tied to its role in the 2020 Zogg Fire despite avoiding criminal liability.

A California judge has dismissed all criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in connection to a fatal 2020 wildfire sparked by its equipment that destroyed hundreds of homes and killed four people, including an 8-year-old.

The ruling came over criminal liability tied to the Zogg Fire in Shasta County.


The backstory: The wind-whipped blaze began on Sept. 27, 2020, and raged through rugged terrain and small communities west of Redding, killing four people, burning about 200 homes and blackening about 87 square miles of land in Shasta and Tehama counties.

  • In 2021, state fire investigators concluded the fire was sparked by a gray pine tree that fell onto a PG&E distribution line. Shasta and Tehama counties sued the utility, alleging negligence.
  • They said PG&E failed to remove the tree even though it had been marked for removal two years earlier. The utility says the tree was subsequently cleared to stay.

The big picture: Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett charged the utility with criminal liability for the fire, but Shasta Superior Court Judge Daniel E. Flynn disagreed, stating that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to show PG&E engaged in criminal conduct.

  • Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $150 million settlement between Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division over PG&E’s role in the Zogg Fire.
  • As part of the agreement, the utility will pay $10 million as a penalty to California’s General Fund, and invest $140 million in shareholder funds in new wildfire mitigation efforts.
  • The utility also reached a $50 million settlement agreement with the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office, which includes $45 million in contributions to organizations dedicated to rebuilding and assisting local communities, as well as a $5 million civil penalty to the county.

What they’re saying: PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said, “We stand behind our thousands of trained and experienced coworkers and contractors working every day to keep Californians safe. We feel strongly that those good-faith judgments are not criminal.”

  • Shasta County District Attorney Bridgett said, “My goal was always to take PG&E to trial and hold them criminally responsible, but Flynn’s tentative ruling changed her position and she agreed to a settlement that includes dropping all charges.”
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