LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An investigation into fierce wildfires that swept Northern California’s wine country in 2017, killing 46 people, found no basis to criminally charge PG&E, the utility whose power lines helped spark the conflagration, prosecutors said on Monday.
The decision, which leaves the company potentially liable for billions of dollars in civil damages, capped a review by the district attorneys of Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt and Lake Counties, as well as the state attorney general’s office, according to a joint statement.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded last June that a dozen of the wind-driven blazes were ignited by power lines owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company and cited code violations in eight of those fires.
The cases were referred to prosecutors to determine whether PG&E had behaved with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees around its equipment.
Ultimately, prosecutors found insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt “that PG&E acted with a reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires, the standard necessary to sustain criminal charges,” they said.
The fires, more than 20 in all, erupted the night of Oct. 8, 2017, and raced across several counties north of San Francisco, collectively dubbed the North Bay Fires.
The flames killed 46 people, scorched at least 245,000 acres (99,148 hectares) and incinerated 8,900 structures, including entire subdivisions in the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa.
An estimated 100,000 people were placed under evacuation orders and the region’s renowned wine-making industry was thrown into turmoil.
The San Francisco-based utility filed for bankruptcy in January, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from the North Bay fires and a separate 2018 blaze that killed 85 people.
Commenting on Monday’s decision to spare the company from criminal prosecution, PG&E issued a statement saying the safety of its 16 million customers and 24,000 employees “remains our highest priority.”
“We continue to focus on helping our customers and communities in these counties continue to recover and rebuild,” the company said.
Prosecutors, however, stopped short of exonerating PG&E altogether.
“Proving PG&E failed in their duty to remove trees was made particularly difficult in this context as the locations where the fires occurred, and where physical evidence could have been located, were decimated by the fires,” they said in their statement.
The company remains on criminal probation from its conviction for a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion near San Francisco and is still a defendant in numerous private civil cases stemming from wildfires.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel