US judge weighs if PG&E violated probation with 2019 fire

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Noah Berger

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2019, file photo, flames from the Kincade Fire consume Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg, Calif. A California prosecutor has charged troubled Pacific Gas & Electric with starting a 2019 wildfire. District Judge William Alsup overseeing Pacific Gas & Electric's criminal probation is holding a hearing Tuesday, May 4, 2021, to consider whether Pacific Gas & Electric violated its criminal probation from a fatal 2010 natural gas explosion by sparking the October 2019 Kincade Fire north of San Francisco.(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A federal judge is weighing whether Pacific Gas & Electric violated its criminal probation by sparking a wildfire north of San Francisco that destroyed more than 100 homes and injured six firefighters in October 2019.

Prosecutors and attorneys for PG&E appeared at a hearing Tuesday before U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a month after the Sonoma County district attorney charged the company with five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts for a fire that destroyed 374 buildings and launched the largest evacuation in the county’s history, with nearly 100,000 people forced to flee.

PG&E has accepted investigators’ findings that its transmission line ignited the fire that burned through 120 square miles (311 square kilometers), but it has denied committing any crimes. It is trying to have two-thirds of the charges thrown out on the grounds that its alleged violations of state air pollution laws don’t constitute a crime.

Federal probation officer Jennifer Hutchings alleged that the 2019 Kincade Fire violated the company’s probation from the 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, a suburb south of San Francisco, which led to Alsup’s appointment overseeing the utility’s operations.

One of the probation terms was that the utility, which serves about 16 million people, not commit another federal, state or local crime.

Alsup said he will consider imposing additional probation conditions because of the fire, adding that “losing 100 homes is catastrophic really. There’s no other way to describe it.”

The judge has repeatedly found that the company violated other probation conditions, and each time has imposed more conditions on the company.

PG&E last year pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter igniting the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County that largely destroyed the town of Paradise in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history.