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PG&E disasters killed 117 people last decade

The 2010s started with a gas pipeline explosion and ended with California's deadliest wildfire, sparked by PG&E power lines.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The decade that just closed brought an unprecedented level of death and destruction blamed on California's largest utility, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).

At least 117 people died in disasters that were caused by PG&E equipment, an average of nearly 12 deaths per year between 2010 and 2018.

Some died in their cars running from the flames of wildfires, some never made it out of their homes, and others lost their lives in a gas explosion.

"In 2019, we appointed new chief executives of the corporation and the utility and replaced most members of our two boards of directors," PG&E spokesperson Brandi Merlo said in an email to ABC10. "We are committed to doing right by the communities impacted by wildfires, and to doing everything we can to further reduce the risk of wildfires in the future."

RELATED: Financial tug-of-war emerges over fire victims' settlement

The deadly disasters have called into question the future of PG&E's monopoly, which covers an area home to 16 million people in California.

Here's a list of the disasters in the order they happened.

2010 - The San Bruno Gas Explosion

Eight people died when a large PG&E gas pipeline split in a San Bruno neighborhood around dinnertime on Sept. 9, 2010. The explosion and fire destroyed 38 homes and injured dozens more people.

PG&E was convicted of six federal crimes in the wake of the disaster, including five counts of willfully breaking federal pipeline safety laws and one count of obstructing the federal investigation into what happened.

The company's systems didn't keep proper track of the age and condition of gas pipelines, a theme that would resurface later in the decade with the electric side of PG&E's business.

The charges were filed against the corporation and not any of the company's individual employees.

Since corporations cannot go to prison, PG&E was sentenced to a maximum of five years probation even though a human defendant could have received up to 30 years in federal prison.

Judge William Alsup ruled PG&E violated the terms of its probation once, deciding to impose new conditions aimed at improving the safety of the company's electric grid.

Alsup previously explored the idea of extending PG&E's time on probation and is currently reviewing whether PG&E may have violated its probation again.

2015 - The Butte Fire

Two people died in Calaveras County when the Butte Fire swept in, sparked when a tree struck a PG&E power line in neighboring Amador County.

The fire started on Sept. 9, 2015 -- exactly five years after the San Bruno explosion.

The flames destroyed more than 800 buildings.

It was a sign of things to come in a windstorm that hit Northern California two years later.

2017 - The October Wildfires

Twenty-two people died in wildfires sparked by PG&E power lines across Northern California in a windstorm that began on Oct. 8, 2017.

An additional 22 people died in the Tubbs Fire, which began at the same time but was blamed on privately-owned power equipment by state fire investigators.

Attorneys for victims of the Tubbs Fire dispute that finding by Cal Fire and launched a legal challenge. PG&E recently agreed to settle with Tubbs Fire victims but does not admit responsibility for causing it.

RELATED: California eases way for land clearing to prevent wildfires

"Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families and friends of the victims of this tragic event," PG&E spokesperson Brandi Merlo wrote. "We've seen no evidence to date that would lead us to believe that our facilities were the cause of the fire."

As for the fires that were blamed on PG&E power lines, most of the 22 deaths happened in fires sparked because of contact with trees. However, four of those deaths happened in the Cascade Fire, which state fire investigators said were caused by sagging power lines slapping together.

2018 - The Camp Fire

Eighty-five people died in California's deadliest wildfire, which started because an old worn-down hook broke on a PG&E high-voltage power line tower during a windstorm on Nov. 8, 2018.

State regulators said PG&E should have kept better track of the condition of its equipment and could have prevented the fire from sparking.

In court filings, PG&E admitted that it didn't always have the ability to track the age of parts on its high-voltage lines.

RELATED: PG&E: repeat problem may have sparked Camp Fire

The fire nearly destroyed the entire town of Paradise and surrounding parts of Concow and Magalia, displacing so many people that the population of Chico grew by 20%.

A criminal investigation into the fire is ongoing. The prosecutor for Butte County said his office is exploring charges as serious as 85 counts of manslaughter.


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WATCH ALSO: How to control California fires, scientists explain | FIRE – POWER – MONEY, Ep. 1 of 3

In California, fires are burning more intensely than ever before. Megafires destroy entire neighborhoods. Some of the deadliest fires have been caused by our own electric grid, but all fires are burning worse because of climate change and an unhealthy forest landscape.  

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