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Sonoma County DA Files Charges Against PG&E For Role In 2019 Kincaid Fire

SONOMA (CBS SF) -- The Sonoma County District Attorney announced Tuesday that its office filed criminal charges against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for its role in causing the 2019 Kincade Fire which burned roughly 78,000 acres and destroyed more than 170 homes..

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said an investigation found that PG&E "recklessly" caused the fire back in Oct. of 2019, which resulted in the destruction of over 370 structures and injured six firefighters.

Ravitch charged PG&E with 5 felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in great bodily injury, unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in the burning of inhabited structures, and unlawfully causing a fire that resulted in the burning of forest land, as well as various air pollution crimes.

The charges came after Ravitch says she investigated the scene of the fire, the Geysers Geothermal Field northeast of Geyserville, herself.

"I went with others from my team, along with CalFire, to the location in the Geysers where we believe the fire began as soon as it was safe to do so. Since that time, we have been working with CalFire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire," Ravitch said.

The Kincade Fire, which burned almost 78,000 acres and lasted for 15 days, was the biggest blaze of the 2019 wildfire season in California. It was the largest fire in the area until the lightning complex fires the following year.

The charges provide little solace for many residents who lost their homes in the fire.

The site where Bernadette Laos' home once stood has been completely cleared in order to rebuild again. But she says what she lost here will never be replaced by criminal charges or civil lawsuits.

"It seems like yesterday. Nothing has changed or healed," says Laos. "Now when I hear about a fire, it's a whole different ballgame. You think someone had a fire and thank god they're alive. But people don't know the after effect of it."

It's been a long, tough journey for Laos to recover from the fire. The smell of smoke and the sound of wind triggers anxiety, tears and grief all over again. And nothing will bring back what she lost.

Laos adds, "I'm not looking for millions of dollars, I would just like to have what I had before."

Victims like Laos have filed civil lawsuits against PG&E but attorneys say criminal charges won't help them one bit. They only aim to hold corporations accountable and force them to pay fines.

"We're trying to get accountability, we're trying to expose the conduct that led to the harm and we're trying to hold PG&E accountable," said Mike Danko, an attorney for wildfire victims. "The problem with criminal charges against a corporation and PG&E in particular, nobody is going to jail even if a jury renders a guilty verdict."

In response, the utility issued a statement denying it had committed a crime but accepting the finding that its transmission line was responsible for the fire.

"In the spirit of working to do what's right for the victims, we will accept CAL FIRE's finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the fire, even though we have not had access to the agency's report or the evidence it gathered," wrote PG&E CEO Patti Pope. "However, we do not believe there was any crime here. We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system."

On Thursday evening the PG&E marketing and communications director Karly Hernandez sent the following statement to KPIX:

The focus on safety expressed by customers, our regulator, policymakers and others is one that PG&E wholeheartedly shares, and we recognize that we have a leading role in reducing wildfire risk throughout our service area.

Regarding the Enhanced Enforcement and Oversight process, we take the feedback we have received from our regulator seriously and have already implemented significant improvements to our Enhanced Vegetation Management program and will continue to do so as outlined in our 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan.

PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 last year with a Plan of Reorganization that included $25.5 billion in settlements, with roughly $13.5 billion going to the Wildfire Victims Trust for individual victims. Importantly, the Plan of Reorganization did not increase customer bills, and PG&E's shareholders were responsible for paying the cost of the wildfire settlements.

Since Chapter 11 emergence, PG&E has continued to make its system safer and more resilient against the threat of extreme weather and wildfire. In 2020, PG&E completed:

  • The installation of hundreds of weather stations and fire cameras intended to keep our customers and communities safe
  • The installation of more than 600 switching and sectionalizing devices to reduce PSPS impacts
  • More than 1,800 miles of Enhanced Vegetation Management work in High Fire Threat Districts
  • More than 376 miles of system hardening

PG&E's most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and communities we serve. As the threat of extreme weather continues to impact portions of California, we remain focused on preventing major wildfires and are committed to our mission to safely deliver energy to our customers and communities."

The first hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court, Department 3, is scheduled for April 20.

Meanwhile, fire departments in Sonoma County are preparing for what could be another active fire season with California experiencing drought like conditions. Agencies have developed new plans to try to stop fires from getting out of hand.

"[In] 2017 the wine country fires were really an eye opener locally. We definitely were overwhelmed by the amount of incidents that were occurring and we really changed our strategies," said Paul Lowenthal with the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

Andrea Nakano contributed to this report

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