Pacific Gas & Electric agreed on Monday to pay $55 million in penalties and costs to settle civil cases brought by prosecutors over wildfires across six Northern California counties.
The agreement allows PG&E to avoid criminal prosecution for causing last year’s Dixie fire — the second-largest blaze in California history — and the Kincade fire in 2019. The settlement includes tens of millions of dollars in payments to local organizations, schools and government agencies, and it will fund an independent safety monitor for the life of the five-year civil judgment.
Prosecutors said they had pursued a civil action against PG&E to gain more benefits for victims than criminal prosecution would have allowed. The maximum criminal fines in the Dixie fire — which burned 963,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 buildings across Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama counties — were $329,417.
“This settlement avoids both a bankruptcy and inordinate delay for the Dixie fire homeowners and renters — particularly those without insurance,” Michael L. Ramsey, the district attorney for Butte County, said in a statement.
Investigators determined that a tree came into contact with PG&E’s power lines near the Cresta Dam, about 100 miles north of Sacramento, sparking the fire.
The Kincade fire burned almost 78,000 acres in Sonoma County, injured four people and destroyed 374 buildings. In December, state regulators fined PG&E $125 million in connection with the fire.
“Although criminal charges are dismissed, the level of punishment and oversight provided by this judgment is greater than could be achieved against a corporation in criminal court,” said Jill Ravitch, the district attorney for Sonoma County, the site of the Kincade fire.
Ms. Ravitch said the decision to reach a settlement also resulted from a failure by state lawmakers to pass laws to increase penalties for corporations found in violation of the law. She added that the state attorney general, Rob Bonta, declined to bring any legal action against PG&E.
Mr. Bonta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
PG&E said it was working to increase its accountability and transparency to the public, which the settlement would continue to help improve.
“We are committed to doing our part, and we look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it right and make it safe,” said Patricia K. Poppe, the chief executive of PG&E Corporation.
The settlement did not include the Zogg fire, which killed four people, burned more than 56,000 acres and destroyed 204 buildings in Shasta County in fall 2020. In that case, PG&E faces felonies and misdemeanor charges, including manslaughter.
Federal and state prosecutors previously won convictions and guilty pleas against PG&E related to gas pipeline explosions and wildfires. PG&E’s felonies include 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter that resulted from the Camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.
The Camp fire and several other wildfires dating to 2015 led PG&E to seek bankruptcy protection after the company amassed $30 billion in wildfire liability. The utility emerged from bankruptcy in July 2020.
The utility has proposed spending billions of dollars for underground transmission lines to help prevent its equipment from causing fires.