Apr 12, 2022 - Energy & Environment

California utility PG&E to pay $55 million over 2 massive wildfires

 A back fire set by fire fighters burns a hillside near PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California on October 26, 2019.

A backfire set by firefighters burning at a hillside near PG&E power lines during firefighting operations to battle the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California, in October 2019. Photo: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

Utility Pacific Gas & Electric agreed Monday to pay $55 million in penalties and costs to settle civil cases over two massive wildfires that affected six Northern California counties.

Why it matters: Investigators found PG&E's ageing, faulty utility equipment sparked the 2019 Kincade Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire. But the agreement means the nation's largest utility will avoid criminal prosecution for the blazes, per a statement from the company.

  • PG&E must undergo five years of independent oversight as part of the deal.

The big picture: Under the agreement, PG&E will strengthen wildfire mitigation plans and pay impacted residents, along with the six affected counties: Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, Tehama and Sonoma.

Flashback: The Kincade Fire razed more than 77,000 acres, destroyed 374 structures and caused the largest-ever evacuation in Sonoma County.

  • The Dixie Fire was the second-largest wildfire ever recorded in California, burning across more than 963,300 acres in the five other counties affected by the settlement and destroying over 1,300 structures.

By the numbers: Most of the settlement will go to nonprofits — with over $35 million distributed to groups including "Fire Safe Councils, volunteer fire departments, local schools and community groups such as Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce and organizations serving veterans and the homeless," per PG&E's statement.

  • "PG&E will pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to Sonoma County related to the Kincade Fire and a $1 million civil penalty to each of the five North Valley counties related to the Dixie Fire," the statement added.

Worth noting: PG&E did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but it's still facing criminal charges for the Zogg Fire — which killed four people in Shasta County, Northern California, in 2020.

What they're saying: Sonoma County district attorney Jill Ravitch said in a statement that although criminal charges over the Kincade Fire were dismissed as part of the settlement, "the level of punishment and oversight provided by this judgment is greater than could be achieved against a corporation in criminal court."

  • Butte County district attorney Mike Ramsey said in a statement that the settlement "avoids both a bankruptcy and inordinate delay for the Dixie Fire homeowners and renters – particularly those without insurance."
  • PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in the company's statement that the utility was "committed to doing our part, and we look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it right and make it safe."
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