Column: More Fire Prosecutions, but Still No Personal Responsibility

By Tom Elias, Columnist

There were headlines all around the state late last month, when local prosecutors filed criminal charges including several counts of manslaughter in Shasta County over deaths in the 2020 Zogg fire, at least partially ignited because of negligence by the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co,

That fire blazed for about two weeks starting in late September 2020, burning more than 56,000 acres in Shasta and Tehama counties.

Chances are the legal outcome this time will be similar to what followed the Camp fire that destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise, the Woolsey fire that decimated much of Malibu and other cases dating back as far as the 2007 Witch fire in San Diego County:

In all those cases, utility companies like PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have admitted fault, some racking up dozens of criminal convictions – but none for executives or employees who made the key decisions leading to fire ignition.

The most recent such case prior to the Zogg fire came in Sonoma County, where District Attorney Jill Ravitch filed 33 criminal charges last spring against PG&E over the 2019 Kincade fire.

In every case, utility executives said they cooperated fully with state investigators trying to pinpoint the exact cause of ignition.

When the Shasta County charges arose, new PG&E CEO Patti Poppe made a similar statement, adding that “We’ve accepted CalFire’s determination that a tree contacted our electric wire and started the Zogg fire… But we did not commit a crime.”

An interesting contention for a company that has filed dozens of guilty pleas over the 11 years since its negligence caused a massive natural gas explosion that killed eight in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno.

But just like the Zogg fire case, no prosecutor ever went after any individual PG&E decision maker. Yet, someone decided which trees to clear away from the company’s Shasta County lines – and which to leave standing or untrimmed.

 The county’s court filing essentially says as much, noting PG&E’s “statutory and regulatory duties to mitigate fire risks by removing hazardous trees from around their electric lines.”

OK, but as Howard Cosell famously wondered in an inadvertent radio clip during a 1970s-era football game, “Who goofed? I’ve got to know.”

In the case of California’s years- long plague of wildfires with higher intensity, area and temperatures than any before them, that’s a vital question. Call it personal responsibility.

Many dozens of Californians now lie dead and many thousands are struggling to rebuild homes and lives in the wake of these fires, but the people responsible for preventing them have suffered not a bit. No one has had a personal conviction. No one has spent so much as an hour in jail for all the convictions; no one has even been demoted or seen salary cuts because of the harm.

Yes, possible penalties in the Zogg fire, like others, can include fines and remedial measures. The companies may even pay off some of those who suffered damages. But they easily make up those expenses in their regular rate increases.

Who decided to let that tree stand? And why? These key questions have not been answered in any of California’s fires of the last few years except those set by individual arsonists.

Yet, for all we know, people whose actions caused immense death and destruction are getting promoted regularly, serving on local school boards and city councils and are otherwise treated as responsible citizens – when they are not.

Gov. Gavin Newsom was suddenly handed a unique opportunity to do something about this the other day, when the president of the state Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, resigned effective at year’s end, with five years left on her term.

The new question for Newsom, who along with Batjer, has long favored utilities over their customers, is whether he will appoint someone to this powerful post who is dedicated to protecting consumers, or yet another faceless bureaucrat ready to go along and get along with utility executives while never using the commission’s great powers to investigate who’s really responsible for billions of dollars of damage and scores of lives lost.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

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