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PG&E to face preliminary hearings on criminal charges over the Kincade fire next month

With neither side objecting to the timeline, a judge set a Feb. 8 preliminary hearing date to decide whether criminal charges should proceed against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over its role in the October 2019 Kincade fire.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office brought five felony charges and 28 misdemeanor counts against the utility for starting the fire. Those charges range from felonies for “wildfire smoke and related particulate matter and ash” that resulted in lung damage to two minors, to 23 misdemeanor health violations over poor air quality.

The utility has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

The case is the first prosecution of PG&E for environmental crimes, according to Ravitch. In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its role in starting with the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise.

In February, prosecutors will present evidence and witnesses to support their charges over the Kincade fire. They will face counter evidence and cross examinations from the investor-owned utility’s hefty legal defense team.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Urioste said the hearing could last as long as 15 days. At the end, he will weigh whether the District Attorney’s Office has enough evidence to go on to a criminal trial.

Attorneys for both parties indicated their readiness for the February date at a court conference Tuesday. PG&E is represented by Santa Rosa attorney Jane Gaskell and three attorneys from the firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen, which has offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

There are “many miles to cover,” between now and a criminal trial, Ravitch told The Press Democrat in an email. But, she added, “the outcome we seek is one that holds the corporation accountable, includes restitution to victims, as well as any oversight we can achieve to ensure the safety of the community going forward.”

Urioste scheduled a final readiness conference for Jan. 28. At that conference, the two parties and the judge are likely to address COVID-19 procedures, Urioste said, depending on the state of the current virus spike driven by the omicron variant.

Cal Fire investigators ruled that a broken piece of equipment on a PG&E transmission line sparked the Kincade fire Oct. 23, 2019, in The Geysers geothermal region of the Mayacamas Mountains in northern Sonoma County.

The fire, which grew to 77,758 acres, lasted two weeks and triggered the largest mass evacuation in county history, at more than 190,000 people. Flames threatened Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor and northeast Santa Rosa. The Kincade fire destroyed 174 homes and a total of 370 structures, including winery and farm buildings.

The high-voltage transmission line in question remained energized during a time of high fire danger when the utility had shut down electricity to other lines. PG&E has acknowledged its line started the fire but utility officials have denied any criminal culpability for the resulting destruction.

“We intend to challenge all the charges,” PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in a statement to The Press Democrat Tuesday. “We will continue our work to make it safe and make it right, both by resolving claims stemming from past fires and through our work to stop catastrophic wildfires.”

Last year, PG&E’s lawyers asked the judge to throw out 25 of the charges that were centered on air contamination. The lawyers argued the California Legislature had written air pollution laws for stationary polluters like power plants, and that contaminants released by the Kincade fire were emitted by the flames, not the utility.

Urioste rejected those arguments.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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