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PG&E says it started 18 wildfires since 2017

But the troubled utility’s lawyers kept the question of criminal liability murky

A PG&E truck in traffic in Paradise, with red skies and smoke on the horizon. Photo by Dylan Mittag

In November, Federal District Court Judge William Alsup ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Company [PG&E] to “provide an accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County.”

PG&E’s lawyers filed a brief on Monday with the court noting the potential legal danger the utility faces from two years of hellish California wildfires. The company also acknowledged possible culpability for 18 burns within that period.

However, attorneys Randy Mehrberg and Reid J. Schar avoided commenting directly on the cause of the Camp Fire—which is still under investigation—and deferred to prosecutors as to whether PG&E will be held accountable for any recent fires.

According to the Monday brief:

If it were determined that a wildfire had been started by reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines, that would, if the specific circumstances gave rise to a violation of federal, state, or local statutes, implicate the requirements of [PG&E’s probation], which provides that while on probation, PG&E shall not commit another Federal, State, or local crime.

If it were determined that PG&E had failed to meet reporting requirements related to wildfires, the particular reporting failure would have to be reviewed for violation of federal, state, or local statutes.

PG&E is serving probation—overseen by Alsup—after being found guilty of criminal charges in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight. Alsup ordered the Camp Fire missive as part of his role overseeing the probationary period.

PG&E’s lawyers emphasized that the utility has cooperated with Cal Fire investigators and a federal monitor assigned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review its records and practices after the 2017 North Bay disasters.

But they also acknowledge that Cal Fire has found PG&E responsible for a shocking number of recent fires:

Cal Fire issued its determination on the causes of 18 North Bay Wildfires. In each instance, Cal Fire has alleged that the relevant fire was caused by PG&E’s equipment. Cal Fire has also alleged that 11 of the 18 North Bay wildfires for which it has completed its investigations involved violations of state law.

In those instances, CAL FIRE referred the relevant wildfire to the local district attorney’s office for review. While CAL FIRE publicly released its investigative reports for the wildfires for which it did not allege violations of state law, it has yet to release the investigative reports for any of the fires that have been referred to county district attorneys’ offices.

Photo by Aaron Kohr

As for the Camp Fire, other than conceding the potential for a violation of its probation, the company admitted little, deferring to the ongoing Cal Fire investigation.

The report does say that PG&E employees were some of the first to spot and report the beginning of the Camp Fire on November 8 and that the fire began “in the vicinity of” a PG&E power pole that has been marked as the alleged origin point for the deadly conflagration, which killed at least 86 in Butte County.

Also on Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a brief outlining potential criminal charges PG&E might face, up to and including manslaughter and murder charges. But Becerra deferred to the ambiguity of the ongoing investigation and said that his office’s analysis is purely hypothetical at this stage.