Criminal charges filed against PG&E for Kincade Fire in Sonoma County
SANTA ROSA, Calif. - A slew of criminal charges filed against Pacific Gas and Electric Company accuses the utility of recklessly causing the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced the five felonies and 28 misdemeanors Tuesday, blaming the utility for a fire that resulted in several firefighter injuries, homes and forest land burning down, and air pollution-related crimes.
The fire started October 23, 2019, at the Geysers Geothermal Field, and scorched almost 80,000 acres, destroying 374 structures.
"This is where it all started, up on the Geysers late that night," recalled Travis Ramazzotti of Ramazzotti Wines in the Alexander Valley.
The family-owned winery in the Alexander Valley has a tasting room in Geyserville, which was the first town to evacuate.
On the heels of the devastating Tubbs Firestorm in 2017, the Kincade fire left Sonoma County even more traumatized.
"People are just exhausted, I'm exhausted, and everybody just wants things to be better, nobody wants these type of things to keep happening," said Ramazzotti, reacting to news of the criminal case.
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CalFire previously determined the Kincade Fire was caused by a jumper cable on a PG&E transmission tower that broke during high winds and arced against the tower causing vegetation to ignite.
Those lines had remained energized even though PG&E had ordered a Public Safety Power Shutoff for many communities, due to high fire danger at the time.
Deteriorating PG&E equipment had already been found at fault for the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County a year earlier; the utility was in bankruptcy and promising better maintenance.
The Sonoma County charges accuse PG&E of destroying homes by not maintaining services and facilities, including transmission lines.
They also said the company caused toxic wildfire smoke and particulate matter that endangered public health.
The District Attorney’s office started its own investigation in mid-July, including witness interviews, search warrants and thousands of documents.
"We have been working with CalFire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade Fire," Ravitch said. "I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings."
PG&E disputes the criminal charges but said it accepts CalFire's finding that a PG&E line caused the fire, despite not having access to the report or evidence.
"We do not believe there was any crime here," PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a statement. "We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted and working to further reduce wildfire risk on our system."
The utility is set to appear in court later this month.
For many fire survivors, the experience still seems fresh.
"The uncertainty of the business, what was going to be saved and what was not, remembered winemaker Ramazzotti.
"And mainly we were more worried about the people in Healdsburg and Windsor because they were in such immediate danger."
As the fire burned south, and threatened other towns, about 200,000 people were evacuated.
Firefighters saved a large swath of Windsor by making a stand and beating back flames house by house, block by block.
"Whatever it's going to take to make sure this doesn't keep happening year after year, that's all I want and I'm sure that's what most Sonoma County residents want," said Ramazzotti.
The Kincade Fire was California's largest of 2019, dwarfed the following year by the widespread "complex" fires, mostly started by lightning strikes.
Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU