Sonoma County prosecutors on Tuesday filed 33 criminal charges against PG&E for the 2019 Kincade fire, blaming its equipment for the fire that sparked the largest evacuation in the county’s history.
Sonoma District Attorney Jill Ravitch was tightlipped about the evidence, however, even as her office announced it was seeking five felony and 28 misdemeanor charges in the nearly 78,000 acre blaze that injured six firefighters and forced more than 200,000 people from there homes.
While the felony charges accuse the company of recklessly sparking a fire, they do not specify the basis for that allegation. In a statement, Ravitch did say that a PG&E line had failed, triggering the fire.
She then stressed she personally visited the scene soon after the fire was out. “Since that time,” she said in the statement, “we have been working with Cal Fire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire. I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings."
According to Cal Fire’s report, the Oct. 23, 2019 fire began at the base of a transmission tower that had once provided power to a nearby geothermal plant.
That report, first obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit last year, blames the utility for failing to properly decommission a 230,000 volt line that branched off from the tower to feed a now shuttered geothermal plant.
Rather than disconnect it back in 2001, Cal Fire found, the utility opted to leave the unused line energized. The problem was compounded when company crews disconnected the live line from a clamp on the tower that kept it taut in high winds.
Cal Fire concluded the unsecured line was left to twist in the wind for two decades, until it eventually snapped.
The company is now slated to appear in Sonoma County Superior Court on April 20 to answer the charges. In a statement, PG&E said that although it’s prepared to accept Cal Fire’s finding of blame in the spirit of cooperation, “we do not believe there was any crime here.”
The company stressed it had still not seen Cal Fire’s final report or any of the evidence it was based on. Meanwhile, the utility said it is moving ahead on wildfire safety improvements in advance of the coming fire season.
Attorney Jack Weaver, who represents some of the first victims who filed suit against PG&E over the fire, thanked firefighters for making a stand in the backyard of his Windsor home.
“They were literally able to save our neighborhood because of their heroics,” he said.
While his house sustained only smoke damage, many of his clients were not so lucky because of what he contends was PG&E’s negligence in maintaining its system.
Weaver welcomed the intervention of county prosecutors as some solace to victims still struggling to recover from the disaster.
“Victims can feel validated to a certain degree, for sure," he said.