Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road in the Sierra Nevada foothills, swept through the towns of Paradise and Concow in November 2018, reducing almost all of the homes and buildings there to ash.
Deadliest wildfire in state’s history
The fire killed 85 people and injured at least 12 others, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, and cost $16.5 billion in damages. A grand jury found that one of the victims died by suicide, leading to 84 manslaughter counts instead of 85, according to the Wall Street Journal.
An investigation led by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that faulty equipment owned and operated by PG&E sparked the fire. Drought and strong, hot katabatic winds from the mountains fed the flames, which raged out of control for much of the month.
“On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow, impacted Magalia and other parts of Butte County and took the lives of more than 80 people,” said PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson in a March 23 statement. “Thousands lost their homes and businesses. Many others were forced to evacuate and leave their lives behind. Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire.”
The utility reached the plea agreement with the Butte County District Attorney’s office on March 17, according to a regulatory filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). The agreement must be approved by the Butte County Superior Court and the federal bankruptcy court overseeing the utility’s insolvency in the wake of several costly California wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Billions in penalties and settlements
The agreement requires PG&E to pay $4 million in fees, including the maximum $3.5 million penalty and $500,000 to the Butte County District Attorney Environmental and Consumer Protection Trust Fund to cover the costs incurred in the Camp Fire investigation.
The utility has paid about $25.5 billion in settlements with wildfire victims in 2015, 2017, and 2018, according to CBS 13 Sacramento.
Mr. Johnson’s statement about the settlement added:
We cannot change the devastation or ever forget the loss of life that occurred. All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company’s part in it. We have previously acknowledged our role in the Camp Fire. Since the fire, we have worked side-by-side with Butte County residents and public officials to help the Paradise region recover and rebuild. That work continues today, and we are doing everything we can to make things right. We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident.
Additional source: Righting Injustice