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In Sonoma County courtroom, PG&E pleads not guilty to Kincade fire charges

With a single answer Wednesday, attorneys for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pleaded not guilty to all 33 crimes alleged by Sonoma County prosecutors over the utility’s involvement in the 2019 Kincade fire, which choked local skies for two weeks and forced nearly 200,000 residents from their homes.

The brief, straightforward court appearance set the stage for what’s expected to be a lengthy preliminary hearing next year on prosecutors’ evidence against PG&E in the largest wildfire on record in Sonoma County.

On Oct. 23, 2019, PG&E’s power equipment ignited the Kincade fire in The Geysers area of the Mayacamas Mountains east of Healdsburg, according to Cal Fire investigators. The 77,758-acre wildfire destroyed 174 homes and a total of 370 structures while triggering the largest mass evacuation in county history, stretching from Geyserville to the Sonoma Coast.

The five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts filed by District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office in April detail the fire’s effects on human health and environmental pollution.

Two of the felony charges were brought on behalf of two children who suffered from “wildfire smoke and related particulate matter and ash” generated by the fire, according to the complaint.

Ravitch also charged PG&E with 23 misdemeanor health violations for 16 days of poor air generated by wildfire smoke from Oct. 23 to Nov. 6.

The proceedings represent the first time PG&E, one of the nation’s largest utilities, has faced criminal charges in Sonoma County tied to any of the destructive and deadly wildfires its equipment has started in the region over the past four years.

Before Superior Court Judge Mark Urioste on Wednesday morning, four PG&E attorneys entered one not guilty plea for all 33 counts.

Much of the court appearance dealt with scheduling the preliminary hearing, where the prosecution will present evidence to establish probable cause for its case and convince Urioste it should proceed to trial.

County prosecutors told Urioste they expected the hearing would be lengthy, needing up to 15 days.

“It is an unusually complex case,” Brad Brian, PG&E’s lead attorney, said in agreement.

Deputy District Attorney Matt Cheever said the evidence prosecutors plan to present may include testimony about air quality testing, statements from witnesses and medical records from survivors.

Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting and forestry agency, traced the start of the Kincade fire to a broken piece of equipment on a PG&E high-voltage transmission line that remained energized during high-risk fire weather that had prompted the utility to turn off electricity in other parts of its grid.

The Kincade fire is one of several catastrophic California wildfires that have spurred criminal cases against PG&E in recent years. Last June, the utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the role its equipment had in sparking the 2018 Camp fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire.

Last month, the utility was charged with manslaughter and other crimes linked to the 2020 Zogg fire that killed four people and destroyed about 200 homes near Redding in Shasta County.

The Kincade fire has already led to a series of civil complaints against PG&E and a $31 million settlement paid by the corporation to Sonoma County and the cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cloverdale and Healdsburg.

PG&E, which only emerged last year from bankruptcy tied to the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, also faces a lawsuit from 200 survivors of the ongoing Dixie fire, which has burned 963,309 acres in the northern Sierra Nevada and remains under investigation by Cal Fire.

PG&E attorneys contesting the Kincade fire case previously pressed the court to throw out 25 of Sonoma County’s 33 criminal charges, arguing that the basis for the accusations was legally insufficient. Urioste last month denied the procedural move, known as a demurrer, and left all charges intact.

The defense may revisit their demurrer during those proceedings, according to Brian, the PG&E attorney.

Urioste on Wednesday asked the attorneys to attempt to streamline the upcoming preliminary hearing, saying that three weeks is usually only appropriate in the most complicated of homicide cases. He agreed to begin those proceedings Feb. 8.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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