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Interview: Butte County District Attorney on prosecuting PG&E for another wildfire

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Andrew Nixon
/
CapRadio
The Dixie Fire, visible from Highway 70, along the Feather River on Wednesday, July 20, 2021.

This week, Cal Fire released the results of its investigation into the Dixie Fire, which burned more than 900,000 acres in five counties and destroyed 1,600 buildings.

The investigation found that the second-largest wildfire in recorded California history began when an electrical wire owned by PG&E came in contact with a tree west of Cresta Dam in Butte County.

The report's been forwarded to the district attorney of Butte County, Michael Ramsey, who prosecuted PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire. The utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of felony manslaughter in that case.

Ramsey joined CapRadio’s Mike Haggerty to discuss how to file charges in regards to fires.

This fire burned in four counties besides Butte. Is the California state Attorney General's Office involved at all?

Not at this juncture. They are a kind of a backstop as where they were in the Camp Fire and a lot of very good minds there that can help.

I know that in a criminal case, priors are an issue when we're talking about a human being. Does that work the same way with utilities?

Absolutely. Basically, if … we establish a pattern of negligence, then such a pattern can eventually make itself into gross negligence. So that certainly is something that we discuss.

I have to ask, given that the Camp Fire was in November of 2018, here we are in early 2022. I know you are a prosecutor. I know you have a process to go through. I know that nothing is a given in this. But are you frustrated that you're here again with the same company, the same issue of fire when PG&E has been making promises to improve in the interim?

Well, the sardonic part of a prosecutor says that we heard statements certainly starting with San Bruno [pipeline explosion in 2011], that they were on probation for these last five years, of saying, OK, we heard from them saying, no, we're going to do better, we're going to do better, we're going to do better.

I have to kind of note that in the gas portion of PG&E’s operation, they really did make vast improvements from what we saw in just our investigation in the Camp Fire. Not so much on the electrical side. But then we get to the Camp Fire, the CEO at that time stood in front of the judge and answered 84 times, guilty, your honor, as a picture of the person that they killed was shown on a screen. The organization has made a turn, there is no doubt. But it is a bit like trying to move the Titanic away from that iceberg.