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Sonoma County district attorney charges PG&E with crimes in the 2019 Kincade fire

Zac Lewis, left, and Luke Bernardini of the Cloverdale Fire Department keep tabs on a home burning as they protect another structure off Geysers Road due to the Kincade fire that started in The Geysers and rolled on to the Alexander Valley floor, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2019

JULIE JOHNSON, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch Tuesday filed criminal charges against PG&E over the 2019 Kincade fire, which was sparked by the utility’s equipment in the mountains northeast of Geyserville and forced nearly 200,000 residents to leave their homes in the largest mass evacuation in county history.

The 33-count complaint is the first time PG&E will face criminal charges for a major wildfire in Sonoma County, which has been hit by large, destructive blazes nearly every year since the 2017 firestorm burned entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and its outskirts.

The Kincade fire broke out Oct. 23, 2019, in The Geysers geothermal region of the Mayacamas Mountains in northern Sonoma County. The fire, which grew to 77,758 acres, threatened communities in Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa, ultimately destroying 174 homes and other structures.

Cal Fire investigators 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.

Ravitch said she and investigators from her office joined Cal Fire at the suspected origin site as soon as it was safe to do so amid the still-burning blaze, which remains the largest on record in the county.

“Since that time, we have been working with Cal Fire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire,” Ravitch said in a statement. ”I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings.”

PG&E officials Tuesday staunchly defended the company against the criminal allegations.

“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,” the company stated. “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.”

Ravitch charged PG&E with five felony crimes and 28 misdemeanors that deal with the company’s role in starting the fire, which injured six firefighters while destroying property and forests.

The case, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, includes environmental crimes against PG&E for the pollution generated by the blaze. 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.

Prosecutors 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.

PG&E representatives are scheduled to appear in court April 20 to be arraigned on the charges.

The criminal charges come nearly 18 months into recovery for those in the Alexander Valley and other areas ravaged by the blaze, which took 13 days for an enormous firefighting force of up to 5,000 personnel to bring under control.

Knights Valley cattle rancher Scott Newman said four of the six homes destroyed by the Kincade fire and since rebuilt are now “watertight” but won’t be move-in ready for another eight to 10 months. His family has rebuilt two bridges, repaired wells, frost protection systems and irrigation stations. They have cleared burned trees and “reduced our fuel load substantially,” Newman said.

Newman said he started out feeling sympathetic for the utility, which had filed for bankruptcy in January 2019 — before the Kincade fire but months after the deadly Camp fire in Butte County killed 85 people. Like the Kincade, Cal Fire investigators blamed PG&E equipment for starting that inferno.

As a business owner, Newman said he is aware that accidents happen. But he’s grown more concerned about the PG&E’s ability to operate its electrical grid safely.

“Hopefully through the process we’ll get a better sense of whether PG&E should be held responsible,” Newman said. “The most important thing to me is how we prevent this from happening in the future.”

Most of the half-dozen fires that broke out in 2017 in five Northern California counties — Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Yuba — started with PG&E equipment, according to Cal Fire. The exception was the most destructive and deadly fire in Sonoma County, the Tubbs, which burned from northern Napa County into Santa Rosa, destroying neighborhoods in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park.

Cal Fire determined the Tubbs ignited with a private property owner’s electrical system. The conclusion is vehemently disputed by attorneys representing victims in a civil case against the utility. Cal Fire didn’t refer that fire investigation to Ravitch’s office.

The Kincade fire broke out amid a large power shut-off that left major portions of Sonoma County without electric service, a tactic PG&E initiated in an attempt to prevent wildfires during major wind storms and other risky fire weather.

Investigators would track the origin of the Kincade fire to a high-voltage transmission tower that remained energized.

View the criminal complaint filed by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office:

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.