PG&E Avoids Criminal Charges for 2 Massive Wildfires by Paying $55 Million

California’s PG&E utility company helped spark the Kincade Fire and the Dixie Fire, which caused immeasurable environmental damage. It paid a settlement to avoid criminal charges.
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Image: Phil Pacheco/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California’s major utility will avoid criminal prosecution for its role in causing two major, devastating wildfires by paying $55 million. 

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which serves 16 million people across 70,000-square-miles of California, reached a settlement with six northern California counties on Monday. In return for $55 million, criminal charges associated with its role in causing the 2019 Kincade fire and the 2021 Dixie fire will be dropped.

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The company has earned a bad reputation for deferring brush-clearing and maintenance and repairs on power lines that are at risk of sparking wildfires. It has been at least partially responsible for sparking a handful of California’s most devastating fires over the years, including the devastating Camp Fire that killed 86 people in 2018

In October 2019, a broken jumper cable on a PG&E transmission tower sparked the Kincade fire, which ripped through 78,000 acres, forced 180,000 people to evacuate, and injured four; and in 2021, a tree fell on PG&E electrical distribution line, sparking the Dixie Fire, which burned through nearly 1,000,000 acres and destroyed 1,329 structures. The latter was the largest fire in the state’s history, and burned for more than 100 days.  

For this perhaps unmeasurable environmental destruction, the company will avoid criminal liability.

PG&E was hit with a $125-million fine and 33 criminal counts for its role in the Kincade fire, and with a lawsuit for legal damages for injuries to public and natural resources for its role in the Dixie fire. But Monday’s settlement allows it to avoid criminal charges for both in exchange for an agreement to pay millions of dollars to various causes across the affected counties.

“It was decided to pursue the Dixie Fire as a civil prosecution rather than a criminal prosecution to maximize the return to the fire victims rather than to seek criminal penalties,” a statement from the District Attorneys of Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte Counties in northern California reads. (The settlement was part of a larger one that also included Sonoma County, site of the Kincade fire.) 

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As part of the settlement, the utility must make $400-per-square-foot payments to Dixie Fire victims who lost their homes; implement powerline safety protocols, including undergrounding 400 miles of distribution line and hiring 100 new positions for electrical systems inspections in the six counties; funding an independent safety monitor to conduct oversight on the utility; paying $29.5-million to local Northern California wildfire non-profits; covering Butte County’s investigative costs; and paying $1 million each to Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte Counties.

No criminal charges will be filed in the Dixie fire, and an existing criminal complaint for the Kincade fire will be dismissed as a result of the settlement.

Prosecutors for the cases are confident that this route will secure a greater degree of justice for victims of the fires. Jill Ravitch, district attorney for Sonoma County told the New York Times she believes a financial punishment will be more effective than a criminal one. 

But crucially, the settlement allowed PG&E to avoid admitting wrongdoing for its role in the fires. To victims of the Dixie Fire, the fines feel like an unequal trade-off for criminal prosecution — like little more than a slap on the wrist. 

“It's not enough at all, they took our town from us,” Dixie fire victim George Wholly, who lost his home to the fire, told Redding, California broadcaster KRCR. “They are criminals in my mind, nothing can change that.”

The two fires aren’t the first that the company faced the prospect of criminal charges for. In 2021, it was charged with 31 criminal counts, including four of involuntary manslaughter for its role in the 2020 Zogg fire. The year prior, it plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its part in starting the 2018 Camp Fire. In 2018, a state probe found the utility’s power lines were the cause of a dozen blazes in northwest California the year prior that killed 46 in total. In all, the company’s equipment was responsible for more than 1,500 fires between 2014 and 2017, a 2020 Wall Street Journal investigation found.

That’s why, to environmental justice advocates like those behind the Local Clean Energy Alliance’s utility justice campaign, the company’s settlement seems to do little to hold the company accountable in the long term. 

“How does this settlement keep us safe? Spoiler: it doesn't,” the campaign tweeted Monday in response to the news. “Instead of probation, transparency, accountability, [PG&E] will pay a pittance.”