PG&E confesses to killing 84 people in 2018 California fire as part of guilty plea

Pacific Gas & Electric confessed this week to killing 84 people in a devastating 2018 wildfire that wiped out the northern California town of Paradise in November 2018.

Bill Johnson, PG&E’s CEO, entered guilty pleas on behalf of the company for 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the fire, which was blamed on the company’s crumbling electrical grid.

“Our equipment started that fire,” said Johnson, who apologized directly to the victims’ families. “PG&E will never forget the Camp fire and all that it took away from the region.”

Although the admission was part of a plea deal, it came during a dramatic court hearing designed to publicly shame the nation’s largest utility for neglecting its infrastructure.

Judge Michael Deems of Butte county superior court, read the name of each victim aloud in the courtroom while the images of the dead were shown on a large screen as Johnson entered a plea for each of the counts. Johnson also pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire.

The Camp fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, including 14,000 homes.

The disaster has been devastating, particularly for residents without means. About 90% of Paradise’s population of 27,000 remains dispersed into nearby valley towns and cities across the US. The estimated 3,000 who remain, living in homes that survived the fire or in trailers on burnt-out lots, are still trying to figure out how to move on.

Later Tuesday, the Butte county district attorney, Mike Ramsey, is expected to release a long-awaited grand jury indictment detailing the corporate misconduct that led to the November 2018 wildfire that destroyed Paradise.

PG&E has agreed to pay a maximum fine of $3.5m for its crimes in addition to $500,000 for the cost of the investigation. The San Francisco company will not be placed on criminal probation.

With no prospect of jail time for a corporation, Ramsey tried to use Tuesday’s hearing to force PG&E to confront the death and destruction stemming from its corporate culture of placing a greater priority on profits for its shareholders than protecting the safety of the 16 million northern Californians who rely on the utility for power.

The plea comes as PG&E is hoping to emerge from its nearly year-and-half-long bankruptcy.

The company has agreed to pay $25.5bn for losses from the 2018 fire and other blazes in 2017 blamed on its crumbling equipment. The company says it has already made changes that will create a more reliable and safer electrical grid, although it still expects to rely on deliberate power outages during the next few years to minimize the risks of causing more fires.

More than 20 family members of people killed in the 2018 wildfire are expected to appear before Deems in a proceeding on Wednesday.

The proceeding unfolded as PG&E approaches the end of a complicated bankruptcy case that the company used to work out $25.5bn in settlements to pay for the damages from the Camp fire and others that torched wide swaths of northern California and killed dozens of others in 2017. The bankruptcy deals include $13.5bn earmarked for wildfire victims. A federal judge plans to approve or reject PG&E’s plan for getting out of bankruptcy by 30 June.

“We want this to be impactful because this can’t go on any longer,” Ramsey to the Associated Press. “There is going to have to be a sea change in PG&E’s method of operation.”

The judge will formally sentence PG&E on Thursday or Friday, according to Ramsey.

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