On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a brief in federal court describing hypothetical criminal charges that Pacific Gas and Electric Company [PG&E] could potentially face as a product of the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018.
The November burn is both California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record; Cal Fire reports more than 18,000 structures destroyed in Butte County, many within days or even hours of the fire’s November 8 genesis.
PG&E admits that it’s possible that its own equipment might have started the fire, and state investigators put the blame on the utility for many past wildfires, including the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County.
[Correction: Cal Fire faulted PG&E for the Norrbom, Partrick, Pythian, Adobe, and Pocket fires. The Tubbs Fire is still under investigation.]
According to the Monday brief from Becerra (filed as part of PG&E’s criminal probation from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster and published by the San Francisco Chronicle), whether or not the utility will face prosecution over the blaze will depend mostly on the “mental state” behind PG&E’s policies.
For example, Becerra writes that “failing to clear vegetation from a power line or pole constitutes a crime if done with criminal negligence.” Notably, this would be illegal even if a fire does not actually result.
Negligence in this case is defined by whether or not a reasonable person would “foresee that the act would cause a high degree of risk of death or great bodily harm.”
Similarly, starting a wildfire is itself a crime in California, but only if it’s done with “conscious disregard of substantial and unjustifiable risk” rather than mere accident.
A potential defendant like PG&E might display negligence without technically being criminally negligent in the eyes of a prosecutor, a potentially tricky line to thread.
Becerra also testifies that the investigation could net involuntary manslaughter charges for any parties found to have contributed to the blaze. At least 86 people died in the fire, and according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, three people remain unaccounted for.
“If PG&E started a wildfire, its potential criminal liability would depend on its degree of recklessness,” the attorney general told the court, adding that “recklessness could include the mental state of multiple offenses.”
However, Becerra also cautions that “this filing does not express or imply any finding on any factual question, on the findings of any investigation, [...] or on the actual existence of any possible criminal liability,” and that deciding whether or not there’s anything to prosecute would first require a completed investigation into the fire’s cause and then into PG&E’s practices.
In the past, PG&E spokespersons have told Curbed SF that they are waiting for Cal Fire to conclude its analysis of the fire and emphasized that no one has yet identified a definitive cause or responsible party in the Camp Fire.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees PG&E’s protected monopoly status in California, said in December it’s considering breaking up or taking over the utility in response to company’s recent disasters, although this too is purely speculative at this stage.
PG&E’s share price began falling the same day the fire began, tumbling from nearly $48 in early November to a recent low of less than $18 a week later, since rebounding a bit to around $24 today.