PG&E could face murder charges for role in California wildfires

Video of Paradise before and after Camp Fire

Video of Paradise before and after Camp Fire

California's attorney general has told a federal judge it's possible the giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could face charges up to murder if investigators find reckless operation of power equipment caused any deadly wildfires in the past two years. Fire officials have not yet officially said what caused the blaze, but have focused on power equipment.

The company reported an outage on a transmission line where the fire started 15 minutes before the flames began to tear through the forest.

California law allows corporations to be held criminally liable, but the brief filed on Friday was advisory and done at the request of a federal judge overseeing the criminal case over PG&E's deadly natural gas explosion in 2010.

Potential liability for the utility company could range anywhere from misdemeanor negligence to murder, according to the brief.

The court filings came after Judge William Alsup said last month that he wanted to know whether any requirements in the utility's criminal sentence "might be implicated" if PG&E equipment ignited a wildfire and what steps an independent monitor has taken to improve safety and reporting on power lines and fires. "This brief expresses no position on any such factual questions".

Instrumental in any potential criminal determination would be PG&E's mental state-and, of course, the findings of the still extant investigation into the Camp Fire's causes.

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PG&E could be charged with other felony crimes if it is found to have acted recklessly, prosecutors said.

If any criminal charges are eventually filed, they would most likely come from county district attorneys and not the state, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey doesn't seem too eager to move in that direction. Ramsey previously settled with PG&E for $1.5 million over a small wildfire in 2017 and when asked by the Bee about the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against the utility company over the Camp Fire, Ramsey said he hadn't made up his mind-even if Cal Fire inspectors determine PG&E was to blame. "It's a little premature", he said.

PG&E's most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. "Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire", the utility said. The company already has been ordered to pay a $3 million fine, run television commercials publicizing its convictions and have an independent monitor oversee the safety of its gas pipeline system.

An energized power line and insulator appeared to have separated from one of the metal towers near the area where the Camp Fire broke out, the company told regulators earlier this month.

Prosecutors said they did not yet have "sufficient information" about any role PG&E may have played in the Paradise fire or other fires this year to determine if the utility may have violated its probation.

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