Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) agreed to pay a $55 million settlement and submit to five years of independent oversight with 6 counties in California on Monday, ending the criminal investigations tied to the 2019 Kincade Fire and the 2021 Dixie Fire.
The conflict with PG&E and the counties of Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, Sonoma, and Tehama over the two wildfires dates back to 2019, only a year after the devastating Camp Fire struck the city of Paradise causing PG&E to enter bankruptcy. In October of that year, the Kincade Fire blazed over 77,000 acres, causing 374 buildings to be destroyed, injuring 4, and causing the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history. Sonoma County, as well as several cities in the County, subsequently sued PG&E following a Cal Fire investigation finding the utility company at fault. While the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) fined PG&E $125 million for starting the fire last year, the criminal investigations against PG&E had been ongoing.
In July of 2021, the Dixie Fire erupted and spread to five counties in Northern California. Eventually spreading across 963,000 acres, the Dixie Fire became the second largest wildfire in state history, causing one death, three injuries, 1,329 buildings to be destroyed. South Lake Tahoe was forced to undergo an evacuation, costing over $637 million, becoming by far the most expensive wildfire in terms of suppression costs in US history. Because of the fire occurring less than a year ago, many legal issues surrounding the fire have yet to be resolved, with the criminal investigations over the Dixie Fire ongoing.
However, instead of continuing on normally, PG&E took the uncommon steps of working toward a civil settlement with the six counties, the agreement finally settled on Monday.
In exchange for avoiding criminal prosecution, PG&E agreed to multiple settlement safety commitment points. The largest part of the the deal was paying $55 million over the next five years. Over $35 million of that amount will go toward non-profit groups in those counties, including Fire Safe Councils, volunteer fire departments, local schools and community groups such as Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce and organizations serving veterans and the homeless. The rest of the money will go to the counties, including a $7.5 million civil penalty to Sonoma County, and a $1 million civil penalty to each of the 5 counties affected by the Dixie Fire. For individuals, an expedited review and approval tool online will also be put into place to help pay victims of wildfires more quickly.
PG&E also agreed to have an independent party monitor their vegetation management and system inspection work in the six counties for the next five years, with the six County District Attorney’s being the ones they will answer to, not PG&E. The independent monitor will also review and verify more safety work and inspections, especially around equipment and vegetation management. A total of 160-200 new PG&E safety-related jobs will be installed in the six counties to help better mitigate and stop wildfires in the future as well.
Finally, PG&E will help fund and include company information to multiple colleges in the six counties, including Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), to expand and enhance fire management endeavors and boost fire technology programs.
A $55 million settlement with six counties
The District Attorneys of the counties approved of the new deal on Monday in multiple respective statements.
“Being found guilty of a crime carries limited value when you’re dealing with a multimillion-dollar corporation,” said Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch on Monday. “What’s more important to us is there’s some level of accountability going forward – to ensure PG&E is doing everything it can to keep us safe. Although criminal charges are dismissed, the level of punishment and oversight provided by this judgment is greater than could be achieved against a corporation in criminal court.”
Plumas County District Attorney David Hollister said, “Making this agreement required a level of trust and partnership in meeting Plumas County’s needs. PG&E’s new leadership team has demonstrated they are committed to change and will continue to work towards earning our trust. I appreciate this commitment and, to paraphrase the 40th President of the United States, look forward to verifying these efforts as provided by today’s agreement.”
PG&E also responded to the settlement, noting that they would now be working much closer with the counties for at least the next five years.
“We are committed to doing our part, and we look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it right and make it safe,” said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe. “We respect the leadership of the local DAs, welcome the new level of transparency and accountability afforded by these agreements, and look forward to working together for the benefit of the communities we collectively serve.”
For local residents, the reaction was more mixed, with some happy to finally have the wildfires now behind them, while others remain upset at not having a more penalizing settlement.
“My neighbor lost their home of 40 years and all of us still have mental trauma and anguish over having to leave and await if we would ever see our homes again,” said Mya Clarkson, a local resident affected by the Dixie Fire, to the Globe on Tuesday. “It’s $55 million but still seems like a slap on the wrist. Mass fleeing and terror and it feels like they got time served, a fine, and probation.”
Other settlements over other fires may be made in the near future.
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