SANTA ROSA, Calif. — In a pair of settlements unveiled Monday, prosecutors will allow PG&E to pay more than $55 million to avoid facing criminal charges for two of the three major wildfires started by its power lines since 2019.
The deal, a result of a months-long, coordinated negotiation by the district attorneys of a half dozen Northern California counties, allows PG&E to avoid prosecution for the 2019 Kincade and 2021 Dixie fires.
As prosecutors announced the deal, it was apparent that PG&E's political power influenced the outcome.
"I look at it as doing the best that we could under the circumstances," Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. "Governor Newsom has decided that PG&E is going to continue, and so we're going to have to deal with PG&E in our community."
The power company was unable to reach a deal to settle the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, where prosecutors charged PG&E last year with felony manslaughter counts for each of the four people killed in the flames.
“In the Zogg case, PG&E‘s actions caused the deaths of four people," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "A civil settlement alone, such as was reached in the Dixie Fire case, would not be sufficient to hold PG&E accountable for their actions.”
Prosecutors said PG&E was reckless in causing the fires that were settled, but under the terms of Monday's deal, the company does not admit to any wrongdoing.
PG&E will pay tens of millions of dollars to nonprofits and independent safety inspectors to reach the settlements.
Prosecutors said they chose to settle instead of prosecuting the cases in order “to maximize the return to the fire victims rather than to seek criminal penalties.”
The deal includes a plan to expedite damages payments for the hundreds of homes destroyed in the Dixie Fire and would enable state civil court oversight of PG&E for the next five years.
"It's like civil probation, essentially," Ravitch said.
That concession is meant to mimic aspects of PG&E’s federal criminal probation for a deadly 2010 explosion, which expired in January despite repeated probation violations by PG&E and objections from relatives of people killed in multiple disasters.
Will Abrams, a safety advocate who survived the 2017 Tubbs Fire, was deeply skeptical of the quasi-probation and called the settlement "unconscionable."
He was similarly untrusting of the plan to speed up payments to people whose houses burned in the Dixie Fire.
"As someone who's been waiting for payment due to PG&E fires since 2017, speed has always been used to sell us a bad deal," Abrams said, pointing to the slow payments from PG&E's 2020 bankruptcy settlement with fire victims.
In the Kincade Fire case, Sonoma County prosecutors had already begun presenting evidence and testimony earlier this year in a criminal preliminary hearing.
The 33 criminal charges, in that case, will be dropped and none will be filed for the Dixie Fire, which was under investigation by the same Butte County prosecutors who convicted PG&E of 84 felony counts of manslaughter after the 2018 Camp Fire.
“This settlement avoids both a bankruptcy and inordinate delay for the Dixie Fire homeowners and renters,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
The settlements were made by district attorneys in Sonoma, Plumas, Lassen, Tehama, Shasta and Butte counties.
The negotiations became known when the Kincade Fire preliminary hearing was put on pause to allow time for a settlement.
Some fire survivors and safety advocates criticized the decision to even engage in settlement talks.
“It needs to go to trial, and it needs to be more than about the money,” said Will Abrams, whose Sonoma County home burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. “If we keep (settling PG&E’s legal cases) we’ll keep having more fires, PG&E won’t be held to account and we won’t have a change in course.”
The previously-unreleased Cal Fire arson investigation reports for the Kincade and Dixie fires will become public records, but prosecutions could have probed both fires in greater detail.
Prosecutors pointed out that a criminal case would have resulted in smaller financial punishment for PG&E.
For instance, the 85 felony convictions against PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire resulted in only $3.5 million in criminal penalties because corporations are subject to the same maximum fines as people and none of the prison time.
PG&E earned that amount of revenue in less time than it took its executives to return from the Butte County Courthouse to San Francisco.
For the full judgment and complaint regarding the Dixie Fire case, view below.
For the full judgment and complaint regarding the Kincade Fire case, view below.
GO DEEPER: This story is part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at firstname.lastname@example.org.