The Kincade Fire ignited on October 23rd, 2019, and burned 77,758 acres in Sonoma County. It was California’s largest wildfire of the year and the largest fire recorded in Sonoma County at the time. Over 200,000 people were evacuated and 374 buildings were burned, including 174 homes. At least four firefighters suffered injuries during the containment effort.
The fire was declared 100% contained on November 6th, 2019. On July 16th, 2020, CAL FIRE determined that PG&E equipment caused the fire. High winds reportedly snapped a jumper cable and ignited the vegetation below. PG&E continues to face legal and financial repercussions for its role in the Kincade Fire.
A statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. According to the California Judicial Branch, the statute of limitations for the following legal disputes in California are:
Personal injury: Two years from the injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is 1 year from the date the injury was discovered.
Property damage: Three years from the date the damage occurred.
The Kincade Fire started at approximately 9:27 pm on October 23rd at John Kincade Road and Burned Mountain Road, near PG&E equipment in The Geysers.
On October 24th, PG&E reported a transmission line near the ignition site had suffered an outage just 7 minutes before the fire’s ignition. The report also revealed that CAL FIRE had taped off the area around the base of the transmission tower and observed a broken jumper. The utility company noted that the information was preliminary.
Although many believed PG&E was responsible for the fire, this was not officially determined until July 16th, 2020. CAL Fire did not release details of its investigation, but the report was forwarded to the Sonoma County district attorney’s office.
Initially, PG&E neither agreed nor denied the findings of CAL FIRE’s investigation. “At this time, we do not have access to CAL Fire’s investigative report or the evidence it has collected,” PG&E said in a statement released the same day. “We look forward to reviewing both at the appropriate time.”
On February 23rd, 2021, over six months after the determination, PG&E acknowledged their role in the fire at a workshop on wildfire safety blackouts hosted by the California Public Utilites Commission. “We understand at a high level that our equipment was responsible for that fire,” PG&E vice president for wildfire safety Aaron Johnson said.
Welty, Weaver & Currie, Schack Law Group, and Murray Law Group filed a civil lawsuit against PG&E on July 8th, 2020 on behalf of individuals and businesses harmed by the Kincade Fire. The complaint claims that the utility company prioritized corporate profits over maintaining its systems and that PG&E failed to address the safety hazards its equipment posed. The attorneys were not able to bring a lawsuit against PG&E until it emerged from bankruptcy on July 1st. The lawsuit was filed 8 days before CAL Fire’s determination was released.
On April 6th, 2021, the Sonoma County District Attorney filed a lawsuit against PG&E. The 33 charges, including 5 felonies and 28 misdemanors, accused PG&E of “recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury” to 6 firefighters, as well as reckless emission of air contaminants.
On April 11th, 2022, PG&E and Sonoma County reached a settlement over the lawsuit. Sonoma County agreed to drop the 33 criminal and civil charges in exchange for compensation and the implementation of wildfire safety measures in Sonoma County. PG&E was ordered to hire at least 80 new wildfire safety related positions in the county and pay just over $20 million to go towards non-profits, fire programs, civil penalties, and to reimburse the District Attorney’s Office for the costs of the investigation. Payments will be spread across a five-year period during which the utility company will be under the supervision of third-party energy consultants.
On October 27th, 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission released a report on the Kincade Fire. The investigation report states that the Safety and Enforcement Division and CAL Fire investigated the incident to determine the cause of the fire and whether there were any violations of the Commission’s General Orders and/or Public Utilites code. The investigation revealed that the Incident Tower, as well as the conductors and jumper cables, were installed by PG&E in 1973.
The report identified 3 violations:
“PG&E failed to configure the jumper cables and insulator strings at the Incident Tower in a manner that is permitted by its own procedures and policies; and in doing so configured its equipment in a manner that does not enable the furnishing of safe and adequate service. Therefore, it is a violation of GO 95, Rule 31.1.
PG&E failed to remove an abandoned line; therefore, it is a violation of GO 95, Rule 31.6.
PG&E abandoned energized equipment and failed to remediate an imprudent configuration of the Incident Tower’s jumper cables, and thereby failed to adequately furnish and maintain its equipment and facilities as is necessary to promote the safety and health of both its patrons and public; therefore, it is in violation of PU Code Section 451.”
On December 2nd, 2021, PG&E reached an agreement with CPUC to pay $125 million in penalties and permanent disallowances for violations related to the ignition of the fire.
PG&E estimated a $600 million loss for the Kincade Fire, according to a 2020 filing with the SEC. Though the appraisal was made months before the cause of the fire was determined, PG&E noted the loss was “reasonably possible”.