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PG&E charged with manslaughter over 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed 4 people

The 31-count complaint alleges PG&E committed 11 felonies, multiple misdemeanors and enhanced charges under California law, in connection to the Zogg Fire.

The fire, which was sparked by a pine tree contacting PG&E electrical lines, burned more than 56,000 acres in September 2020. In addition to claiming four lives, the Zogg Fire injured one, destroyed 204 residential and commercial structures and damaged 27 others.

“PG&E as a utility has both statutory and regulatory duties to mitigate fire risks by removing hazardous trees from around your electrical lines, these duties are clearly laid out in both the public resources and public utility codes,” Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said.

“In this case, they failed to perform their legal duties,” she said. “Their failure was reckless. It’s criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people.”

The utility company has faced similar lawsuits and charges in the past. In June 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest blaze in California’s history.

The people who died in the Zogg fire, ranging in age from 8 to 79, died while fleeing the fire, according to Bridgett.

Bridgett added in 2018, PG&E contractors marked the tree as being hazardous but it was never removed.

“The gray pine was left in place leaning towards the electrical lines, the significant visible defect in its trunk, ’til it ultimately fell on the electrical line in a windstorm,” she said.

PG&E said it accepted Cal Fire’s determination that a tree touching its power line started the fire.

“We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime,” PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a statement.

Two arborists walked the power line and “independent of one another determined the tree in question could stay,” the statement said, adding the company had trimmed or removed more than 5,000 trees on that circuit.

“This was a tragedy, four people died,” Poppe said. “And my coworkers are working so hard to prevent fires and the catastrophic losses that come with them. They have dedicated their careers to it, criminalizing their judgment is not right. Failing to prevent this fire is not a crime.”

She added, “Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this. Let’s be clear, my coworkers are not criminals. We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that.”

Removing 300,000 trees statewide and burying power lines is part of the company’s strategy to prevent future fires, PG&E said.

In April, criminal charges were also filed against PG&E over the 2019 Kincade Fire, which scorched more than 77,000 acres of vegetation in Sonoma County, destroyed more than 300 structures and caused injuries.

And in 2019, PG&E filed for bankruptcy after facing billions of dollars in claims tied to deadly wildfires.

Poppe, who became CEO in January, said she “came to PG&E to make it right and make it safe.”

PG&E provides natural gas and electric service to about 16 million residents in Northern and Central California, according to its website. Based in San Francisco, PG&E is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the nation.

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