SACRAMENTO – PGE Corp. received its criminal sentence Thursday for igniting the deadliest wildfire in California history: a $4 million fine that the judge and prosecutor acknowledged may have been too small for the crimes committed.
Two days after the utility’s chief executive entered guilty pleas to 85 felony charges in connection with the 2018 Camp fire, a Butte County Superior Court judge levied the maximum penalty allowed by state law: $3.5 million in fines and penalties, plus $500,000 in additional fees to cover prosecutors’ investigative costs.
Judge Michael Deems, speaking to a nearly empty Chico courtroom, expressed some frustration that “PGE cannot be sent to prison” and said a person who committed the same crime would be facing 90 years in prison.
Mike Ramsey, the Butte County district attorney, noted that Camp fire victims had been demanding prison terms for PGE’s top executives.
But under California law, those executives couldn’t be prosecuted for behavior about which they lacked direct knowledge. And he said it “would have been impossible” to prove criminal charges against any of the rank-and-file employees who failed – over the course of decades – to maintain the flawed transmission tower that sparked the Camp fire.
The fine, while the maximum allowed by law, is “too little for the enormity of the criminal behavior,” Ramsey told the judge before the sentence was announced. “But it is a start.”
The DA said he respects CEO Bill Johnson and his successor, incoming CEO Bill Smith, as honorable men with a “burning desire to change the culture of PG&E.”
Smith reiterated PGE’s pledge to overhaul its operations and reduce wildfire risks and said the utility is “ready to be held to account for this tragedy.” He told Deems the company is “committed to making sure our equipment never again causes a catastrophe like this.”
Smith sat through a daylong hearing Wednesday during which relatives of the Camp fire victims spoke of their loved ones and their anger toward PG&E. Two more relatives came forward Thursday just before sentencing, including Mike Hanko, whose brother Dennis died in the fire.
Fighting back tears, Hanko said he was speaking “on behalf of three sisters who have lost their baby brother” and wished for a stricter punishment for PGE.
“They just file for bankruptcy, pay fines, money to people,” he said. “Then it’s back to business.”
The Camp fire started Nov. 8, 2018 – a “day of infamy” that Ramsey compared to Pearl Harbor, the John F. Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That morning, a worn-out, century-old hook finally gave way on a transmission tower, allowing a high-voltage wire to brush against the metal and ignite. Molten metal lit the dry vegetation below, and within minutes fierce winds blew the fire through the Feather River canyon toward the town of Paradise.
The fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. “A town of some 26,000 people was utterly destroyed,” Ramsey said.
The Camp fire, along with a series of deadly fires that ripped through the Northern California wine country a year earlier, drove PGE into bankruptcy.
On Wednesday a bankruptcy judge approved PGE’s reorganization plan, which is built around a $13.5 billion payout to victims of the 2017 and 2018 fires for their uninsured damages.
The guilty pleas in the Camp fire case marked the second time PGE has been guilty of a felony. The utility remains under probation following conviction on federal charges in connection with the deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
In that case, PGE was fined $3 million – also the maximum allowed by law. PGE was also ordered to spend up to $3 million publicizing the convictions and had to commit to 10,000 hours of community service.