By Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee
The names were read aloud, their photographs projected on a courtroom wall, the victims of the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Paul Ernest. Joanne Caddy. Larry Brown. Rose Farrell, Robert Quinn, Vernice Regan and all the rest.
After each name was read, the chief executive of PG&E Corp. solemnly answered: “Guilty, your honor.”
PG&E admitted its guilt Tuesday in Butte County Superior Court in connection with the Camp Fire, the second time in three years the state’s largest utility has been convicted of a felony.
For a half hour, CEO Bill Johnson stood behind a wooden conference table in a mostly empty Chico courtroom, stared at the sequence of photos and repeated the guilty plea after each charge was read _ a count of felony involuntary manslaughter for each of the 84 victims and a single count of unlawfully starting a fire, for a total of 85 counts.
Although 85 people died in the Nov. 8, 2018, disaster, one of the victims committed suicide. Prosecutors felt they didn’t have enough proof to back up their suspicion that the victim killed himself to avoid being burned to death.
Investigators determined that the fire was ignited when a faulty clamp, called a C-hook, allowed a live wire to brush up against a high-voltage transmission tower northeast of the town of Paradise, showering sparks on the dry grass below.
“Our equipment started that fire,” said Johnson, who took over PG&E four months after the catastrophe. “I wish there were some way to take back what happened.” He noted that PG&E has reorganized its inspection protocols since the fire and has worked with Butte County officials to help the community rebuild.
“We’re doing everything we can to make this right,” he said.
The Camp Fire ignited early on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, on a ridge overlooking the Feather River canyon. In barely an hour, the wind-blown fire was barreling through the remote communities of Concow and Magalia and heading toward Paradise and its population of nearly 30,000.
Although Paradise had experienced major fires before and had undergone evacuation drills, the ferocity of the Camp Fire quickly overwhelmed the town.
“The rapid rate of progression of the fire outpaced the plan,” Butte Sheriff Kory Honea, who stood at a busy intersection and tried to route traffic away from the fire, recalled afterward. “This fire was outrunning us before we realized we were in a race.”
By day’s end, more than 12,000 homes in the heavily wooded area were gone.
The Camp Fire, along with the catastrophic wine country fires from a year earlier, left the utility with billions of dollars in liabilities and drove PG&E into bankruptcy.
The company is now on the verge of exiting bankruptcy, pledging to start fresh with a greater focus on public safety, but Tuesday’s guilty plea was an abject reminder of the company’s troubled recent history.
The company is already on probation after being convicted in federal court in San Francisco on charges stemming from the deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
For its role in the Camp Fire, the company is expected to pay a $4 million fine, the maximum penalty available under the criminal code.
By contrast, the company is paying $13.5 billion to victims of the Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires for their uninsured damages as part of the bankruptcy settlement.
In a separate proceeding before the Public Utilities Commission, it agreed to absorb nearly $2 billion in fire-related costs from the 2017 and 2018 fires that otherwise would have been pass on to ratepayers.
The appearance in the Chico courtroom Tuesday doesn’t end the company’s involvement in the criminal case. PG&E officials must face three days of victims’ testimony before Judge Michael Deems delivers his sentence Friday.