Utility could face charges in California wildfires

/ CBS/AP

Utility could face charges in Calif. wildfires

California's attorney general has told a federal judge it's possible the giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could face charges up to murder if investigators find reckless operation of power equipment caused any deadly wildfires in the past two years. The company reported an equipment malfunction at the time and location where the fire started.

The brief from the office of Attorney General Xavier Becerra is purely advisory, and any criminal charges would most likely be filed by county district attorneys, not the state, the Sacramento Bee reported. Prosecutors would have to assess PG&E's "mental state" before determining whether to bring charges, which could range from murder to misdemeanor negligence, according to the brief filed late Friday.

The opinion was submitted to a judge overseeing a criminal case involving a PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno in 2010. PG&E was convicted of violating federal pipeline safety laws, and the judge asked for the attorney general's opinion on whether any wildfires constitute a probation violation.

The company has until Monday to file its response to the court, but it told the newspaper: "PG&E's most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild. Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire."

The attorney general's brief adds to legal troubles facing PG&E, which serves about 16 million people in 70,000 square miles in northern and central areas of the state.

"The fire was growing … at a rate of one football field a second"

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that PG&E likely broke state law in connection with 12 of the many wildfires in wine country and elsewhere during 2017. It is also investigating the utility in connection with the "Camp Fire," which erupted last month in the Sierra Nevada foothills and killed at least 86 people and destroyed 14,000 homes while leveling the city of Paradise.

Tabatha Brewster and her two daughters are starting over after losing their home in the fire. The family is using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to move from motel to motel.

"I think every child needs a little bit of stability. It makes me feel like a bit of a failure that I couldn't find something fast enough," Brewster said. "I can't live in motels forever. I'm hoping that something comes together."

First published on December 30, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Utility could face charges in California wildfires

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