Sonoma County DA: No criminal charges for PG&E in 2017 wildfires

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Sonoma County prosecutors will not file criminal charges against PG&E for causing a series of deadly and destructive wildfires that erupted during the October 2017 Northern California firestorm, District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced Tuesday.

Cal Fire investigators determined PG&E had violated state safety codes, mostly by failing to trim trees and brush near powerlines, in four of the fires that originated in Sonoma County: the Adobe, Norrbom, Pocket, and Pythian/Oakmont fires.

But a team of senior Sonoma County prosecutors came to the conclusion those investigations didn’t reveal sufficient evidence of criminal recklessness or negligence on the part of the utility, Ravitch said.

“It was a very difficult decision for all of us,” Ravitch said. “When you look at the damage to our community, it has impacted our county in ways we’re still trying to understand. But we couldn’t find enough evidence to support criminal charges.”

Prosecutors in Lake, Napa and Humboldt counties also reached the same conclusions for fires that started in their areas and announced their findings Tuesday.

In response to the announcements, PG&E issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to “the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve.”

“We continue to focus on helping our customers and communities in these counties continue to recover and rebuild,” the company stated.

The most devastating fire — the Tubbs — originated near Calistoga in Napa County but took its greatest toll in Sonoma County, burning 36,807 acres, destroying 5,636 structures and killing 22 people. Cal Fire investigators announced in January they had determined the Tubbs fire was started by private electrical equipment not owned by PG&E.

But PG&E equipment was deemed responsible for causing 17 other fires in 2017 that broke out amid strong winds on Oct. 8-9 and grew into major wildfires, burning more than 245,000 acres across Northern California, destroying nearly 6,200 homes and killing 44 people, according to Cal Fire.

Cal Fire investigations found the utility, one of the nation’s largest with about 16 million customers from Central California to the Oregon border, had acted in negligent violation of state safety codes in 11 of those fires. Most of the violations involved failing to trim trees and other vegetation near powerlines.

Just last week, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup called PG&E’s vegetation management “dismal” and said the utility’s “unsafe conduct” caused the 2010 deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight people, and several wildfires. Alsup is supervising PG&E’s criminal probation for the San Bruno disaster, for which the utility was found guilty of six felony crimes for its failure to inspect its gas lines and ensure its safe operations.

Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller, who lost his home to the Tubbs fire and is involved in the civil cases lodged by thousands of plaintiffs who lost homes or family in the fires, said the decision not to prosecute PG&E for criminal negligence in the 2017 fires “flies in the face of all the information I’ve seen.”

Miller said that he has a record of complaints in Napa County dating back years from people complaining to the utility about “a lack of maintained equipment, power poles rotted out, issues with growth into the wires.”

“Especially given how hard the federal judge has come down on (PG&E), the idea that they (prosecutors) don’t see enough evidence of negligence when that judge is compelling them to completely overhaul their entire grid, is absolutely inconceivable,” Miller said.

For criminal charges, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that PG&E “acted with a reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires, the standard necessary to sustain criminal charges,” according to a statement from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Ravitch said prosecutors reviewed Cal Fire’s investigative reports and consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office as well as Napa, Humboldt and Lake county district attorneys.

“At the end of the day, we cannot look to the criminal courts to bring closure to the thousands of people who have been damaged as a result of this terrible tragedy, unfortunately,” Ravitch said.

Two other fires in Sonoma County, the Nuns and Thirty Seven fires, also were caused by the utility’s power equipment, but state fire investigators found no evidence the utility company had violated state regulations.

Ravitch pointed out that the public will still have a chance to seek remedies, including financial compensation, for the damage caused by PG&E-sparked fires through civil lawsuits, including those lodged by Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa.

Ravitch said her office will continue to pursue prosecution in cases of price-gouging, unlicensed contractors and other types of fraud related to the fire and its aftermath.

She said she could not confirm or deny if her office is investigating the evacuations of two Santa Rosa senior care homes, Villa Capri and Varenna, during the 2017 fires. State regulators determined staff abandoned about 100 residents as flames advanced toward Fountaingrove, in violation of state codes. One of the facilities burned to the ground. Oakmont Senior Living, which owned the care homes, reached a settlement with the state in November that will allow it to operate them going forward.

“I can’t speak to whether or not there are ongoing investigations involving other aspects of what happened in October 2017,” Ravitch said. “We never comment on ongoing investigations.”

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

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