By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - Prosecutors in Northern California on Friday charged power utility Pacific Gas & Electric with four counts of manslaughter and other felonies, alleging it failed to cut down a sickly tree that fell onto power lines and sparked a deadly wildfire.
The company denied it committed a crime.
The Zogg Fire started nearly one year ago when a 100-foot (30-meter) pine tree fell onto an electrical line and started a fire that killed four people, destroyed 204 structures and burned more than 56,000 acres (22,600 hectares), Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett told reporters.
That tree, leaning downslope toward the electrical line with a cavity in its trunk, had been identified as dangerous in 2018 and PG&E had a legal responsibility to remove it, Bridgett said.
"Their failure was reckless, and was criminally negligent, and it resulted in the death of four people," Bridgett said, naming the victims as Feyla McLeod, age 8, Alaina Rowe McLeod, 46, Kenneth Vossen, 52, and Karin King, 79.
The company was charged with 31 counts in all, including 11 felonies, the latest in a series of criminal accusations in recent years.
PG&E accepted the determination by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) that the fire was started when a tree fell on its line, but the company denied it was criminally liable, disputing Bridgett's characterization that PG&E contractors had marked the tree as hazardous.
"We accept that conclusion. But we did not commit a crime," Chief Executive Patti Poppe said in statement.
Two arborists had determined the tree, one of 8 million within striking distance of its lines, could stay, Poppe said. Meanwhile the company will remove 300,000 trees statewide this year, part of a $1.4 million investment in vegetation management she said.
"I came to PG&E to make it right and make it safe," said Poppe, who was named CEO last year after the company paid a $13.5 billion settlement to resolve claims related to several Northern California wildfires and emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
While no individuals can go to jail when a company is criminally charged, the company faces undetermined fees, fines and remediation costs if convicted.
PG&E last year pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the Camp Fire, which wiped out the town of Paradise.
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state's history, Cal Fire said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Aurora Ellis)