State OKs $125 million penalty against PG&E for Kincade fire
State regulators on Thursday approved a $125 million penalty against Pacific Gas & Electric over the 2019 Kincade fire, a nearly 78,000-acre blaze sparked by electrical transmission equipment in a remote area of The Geysers.
The California Public Utilities Commission, a regulatory agency that oversees privately owned public utilities, voted 3-2 in favor of the settlement during a virtual meeting held Thursday.
Shareholders will be responsible for paying a $40 million penalty to California’s General Fund and another $85 million for removal of abandoned transmission equipment throughout the utility’s territory, according to the settlement agreement.
The fire, which prompted the historic evacuation of an estimated 190,000 residents, became Sonoma County’s largest-ever blaze. It was also the largest and most destructive wildfire that year, destroying 174 homes and about 200 other structures.
In a statement issued following Thursday’s decision, PG&E reiterated it had agreed with a July 2020 Cal Fire investigation that determined a high-voltage PG&E transmission line caused the Kincade fire, though it rejected violations cited by state regulators related to the blaze.
The company decided to settle with the state commission regardless, PG&E said in the statement.
“We believe the settlement will assist in allowing all parties to move forward from the fire, and permit us to focus on compensating victims and making our energy system safer,” the company said.
The investigative findings of the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division were used to support the penalty. The agency found fault with the maintenance and condition of a high-voltage PG&E transmission tower.
That tower remained energized for years even though it had served a Calpine power plant that no longer was active, investigators found.
A worn jumper cable from the transmission equipment broke and arced against the tower during extreme winds on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, sparking nearby vegetation, according to the report.
Named the Kincade fire, the blaze burned for two weeks before it was fully contained. And, besides causing the significant destruction of property, it injured four people, the regulatory agency said.
Of the five commissioners who voted on the settlement agreement, Darcie Houck and Genevieve Shiroma cast the two dissenting votes.
Each cited concerns with the process that led to the agreement, known as an administrative consent order, which sped up the time frame for the agreement but limited public input.
Houck added that PG&E’s equipment has been tied to several significant “catastrophic events” since 2010, which together have resulted in billions of dollars in damage and the loss of more than 100 lives.
“Given the number and severity of these events, I believe that we should be providing greater scrutiny to this proposal before us and have several concerns over the administrative consent order,” Houck said.
In addition to the settlement with state regulators, the utility also is accused of 33 criminal charges, filed by Sonoma County prosecutors in April, related to the fire’s impact on human health and environmental pollution.
The charges include 23 misdemeanor health violations for poor air caused by wildfire smoke during the two-week period before the blaze was fully contained.
Two of the felony charges stem from two children who suffered due to “wildfire smoke and related particulate matter and ash” generated by the fire, according to the criminal complaint.
On Oct. 13, PG&E attorneys appeared in court before Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Urioste and entered not guilty pleas to the 33 criminal counts.
A preliminary hearing in the case, in which Urioste will determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial, is scheduled for Feb. 8 and is expected to last 15 days, Sonoma County Superior Court records show.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or email@example.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.