California utility PG&E is officially pleading guilty to manslaughter charges related to the deadly Camp Fire in 2018.
The utility announced Monday that it had reached a plea agreement with the Butte County District Attorney in a case dealing with the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. The company is pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire.
“Our equipment started the fire,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said in a company statement. “Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement, we accept responsibility for our role in the fire. We cannot change the devastation or ever forget the loss of life that occurred. All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company’s part in it.”
PG&E’s outdated infrastructure and downed power lines sparked the fire in November 2018 that tore through the town of Paradise and surrounding communities in Butte County. Since then, the utility has filed for bankruptcy. Last year, PG&E tried to avoid setting more blazes throughout the state and accruing more liability by shutting off power for hundreds of thousands of Californians. These blackouts were meant to keep vulnerable power lines from succumbing to high winds, but they wound up punishing vulnerable individuals who had nothing to do with the company’s failure to maintain critical infrastructure. Paradise, meanwhile, has been slow to rebuild with a large portion of its residents still not able—or wanting—to return.
Now, karma’s finally coming around. This plea agreement comes with $4 million in fines and expenses, which is a relative pittance compared to the damage the fire caused. The utility has already paid out settlements with victims of the historic blaze, totaling some $25.5 billion. This agreement also prevents the county from filing any more “criminal charges related to or arising out of the 2018 Camp fire” against the company, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
The state entered an agreement with the utility Friday to help improve its operating structure. For instance, the company’s board must now include California residents. An independent firm will select new directors as well. Hopefully, these changes help.
All that plus concluding bankruptcy proceedings by summer should have the utility on track to be ready come the next wildfire season, which may prove more challenging than usual given the covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has infected firefighters around the state, potentially hurting efforts to combat any blazes that do start. Drought is also expected to persist and deepen in parts of California just one year removed from a wet winter, raising the risk of big fires. This is one of the key symptoms of climate change. And so California better be ready—with or without PG&E.