PG&E to Pay California $125M for 2019 Fire Started By Faulty Equipment, Destroying 174 Homes

A settlement has been reached between California regulators and Pacific Gas & Electric as a result of the massive Kincade Fire in 2019 that was caused by facility equipment, the Associated Press reported.

PG&E shareholders agreed to pay two fines. They will first pay $40 million to the state's general fund, then $85 million to remove abandoned transmission equipment throughout the utility's territories in the state. The second part of the agreement is expected to be formally approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on December 2.

The fire started after decommissioned but energized transmission equipment broke against a tower on October 23, 2019. The surrounding vegetation ignited, eventually resulting in a wildfire that scorched over 120 square miles. It also ended up destroying 174 homes and injuring four people, with 190,000 residents ordered to evacuate.

"PG&E left abandoned equipment energized for thirteen years even though that equipment provided no benefit or convenience to the public," the enforcement division report said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kincade Fire
A settlement has been reached between California regulators and Pacific Gas & Electric as a result of the massive Kincade Fire in 2019 that was caused by facility equipment. The fire consumed more than 200 structures, including the Soda Rock Winery (above). AP Photo/Noah Berger, File

The agency's investigation was separate from one conducted by Cal Fire, which last year traced the wildfire, the largest in Sonoma County history, to the high-voltage electrical transmission tower in the Mayacamas Mountains.

It is also independent of a criminal case still pending in Sonoma County Superior Court, where PG&E is charged with five felonies and 28 misdemeanor counts alleging the utility recklessly caused the fire.

A PG&E spokeswoman said Wednesday that the utility disputes several features of the utility commission's investigation. In particular, the company believed the Calpine unit served by the tower to be on "cold standby," meaning it could be put back into use, spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said.

Calpine also continued to pay monthly service charges and had inspected the equipment as part of its wildfire prevention efforts, Paulo added.

The company agreed to settle with the commission, despite disagreeing with alleged violations, in hopes it "will assist in allowing all parties to move forward with the fire, and permit us to focus on compensating victims and making our energy system safer," the utility said in a statement.

PG&E already has settled with Sonoma County and the cities of Windsor, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Cloverdale, agreeing last May to pay $31 million in damages related to the public safety response to the wildfire.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the 2018 Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise and was sparked by its equipment. It also faces numerous criminal charges for fires caused by its fraying equipment, including four charges of manslaughter filed in September by Shasta County prosecutors.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district suffered most of the damage from the Kincade fire, said Wednesday that he remains troubled by PG&E's lack of transparency and accountability.

"You know, it's interesting that a settlement is really about spending the money that you should have spent before on something," Gore said. "Let's call it what it is."

A historic drought and recent heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West. Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Firefighters Against Kincade
A settlement has been reached between California regulators and Pacific Gas & Electric as a result of the massive Kincade Fire in 2019 that was caused by facility equipment. Above, firefighters inspect the damage on October 26, 2019. Photo by Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images