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PG&E lawyers challenge bulk of charges tied to 2019 Kincade fire in Sonoma County

PG&E lawyers indicated Tuesday, in an arraignment in Sonoma County Superior Court on charges that the utility recklessly caused the 2019 Kincade fire, they would challenge 20 counts in the criminal indictment.

It was the first appearance in court for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to begin presenting its case against the 33-count complaint filed April 6 by county District Attorney Jill Ravitch.

Also, it’s the first time PG&E faces criminal charges for a major wildfire in Sonoma County, which has been hit by destructive blazes nearly every year since the 2017 firestorm burned entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and the outskirts.

The Kincade fire was sparked by the utility’s equipment in The Geysers geothermal region of the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Geyserville on Oct. 23, 2019, and forced nearly 200,000 residents to leave their homes in the largest mass evacuation in county history.

Cal Fire investigators traced the start of the 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 electric grid.

Prosecutors with Ravitch’s office squared off Tuesday with lawyers representing the San Francisco-based utility for roughly 15 minutes before county Judge Mark Urioste. Santa Rosa attorney Jane Gaskell represented PG&E in court, while other PG&E lawyers appeared virtually.

The utility’s attorneys contended they will aim to have 20 counts stricken from the complaint because they do not constitute crimes.

The company’s lawyers told the judge those counts involve air pollution — two of them felonies and the rest misdemeanors — but based on the facts prosecutors stated in the complaint they are not crimes, Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said in an email to The Press Democrat after the arraignment proceeding.

“We’ve previously stated we accept Cal Fire’s finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the fire, but we do not believe there was any criminal activity,” PG&E said in a statement to the newspaper after the proceeding.

The company’s lawyers will provide the court by May 11 a written motion challenging the legal basis of 20 of the 33 counts included in the indictment.

Prosecutors earlier this month charged PG&E with five felony crimes and 28 misdemeanors over the company’s role in starting the 2019 fire, which burned 77,758 acres and destroyed 174 homes.

In their indictment, prosecutors alleged PG&E committed various air pollution crimes and caused the Kincade blaze that resulted in great bodily injury to firefighters and burned structures and forest land.

Judge Urioste set a May 25 hearing to schedule a date for PG&E’s oral arguments to contest the 20 air pollution counts.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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