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PG&E pleads guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for deadly wildfire

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Bankrupt, fire-starting utility guilty on all charges, agrees to maximum fine

Smoke settling over a town in Butte County, seen from the air.
Smoke settles over Butte County in 2018.
Photo via Shutterstock

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) agreed to a plea deal on charges related to the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, a disaster that killed dozens of people and devastated towns in Butte County. The utility acknowledges it was criminally responsible for the conflagration.

Under the deal reached with Butte County’s district attorney this week, PG&E is guilty of 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, as well as one count of unlawfully starting a fire.

The nearly $4 million fine the bankrupt company agreed to pay—more than $3.48 million for the charges, plus half a million dollars in attorney fees for the county—is the maximum possible.

The SF-based utility will also pay to restore water access for five years to residents whose water-delivery infrastructure was destroyed in the fire.

“Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility,” said PG&E President Bill Johnson in a written statement.

Johnson also noted that as part of its bankruptcy proceedings PG&E will pay a total of $25.5 billion in reparations for wildfires it started in 2015, 2017, and 2018.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey says that the 85 guilty pleas accounted for every charge his office lodged over the 2018 blaze, and that the fire-starting charge included “special allegations” for those survivors injured by the fire.

He called the results “justice done.”

According to Cal Fire, the Camp Fire remains the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, obliterating over 18,800 buildings and all but wiping out towns like Paradise, Magalia, and Concow. A Cal Fire investigation determined in May that PG&E’s electrical lines sparked the blaze.

Cal Fire records 85 casualties from the fire (the most of any wildfire recorded in the state), but the county pressed charges for 84 because of disagreement over whether or not one victim’s death was fire-related.

The plea arrangement is agreed upon but not quite complete; the Butte County Superior Court and the bankruptcy court overseeing PG&E’s chapter 11 filing must green light it as well. The court date for officially entering the please is also delayed thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak in Northern California.

Last week, PG&E made a deal with Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of its bankruptcy proceedings that will put the utility up for sale, “to the state or another party,” depending on whether potential private buyers present themselves.