Many Californians still ‘trapped’ years after PG&E fires. Has the company improved safety?

As the impact of climate change grows, so does the risk of ever larger and more frequent wildfires. No state knows that better than California. But the Golden State is also grappling with the role of one of the country's largest utilities in the matter, and whether the company will do what's needed to prevent or stop fires. Stephanie Sy explores.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As climate change's impact grows, so does the risk of ever larger and more frequent wildfires. No state knows that better than California.

    But the Golden State is also grappling with the role of one of the country's largest utilities in all of this and whether the company will do what's needed to prevent or stop fires.

    Stephanie Sy has the story.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's been five years since the California utility PG&E was placed under criminal probation for its conviction in the explosion of a natural gas pipeline, which killed eight people in 2010.

    The probation ends today, but PG&E remains a continuing menace, wrote the supervising judge in a concluding report. Federal Judge William Alsup says PG&E has failed to rehabilitate itself, and says Californians remain — quote — "trapped in a tragic era of PG&E wildfires because, for decades, it neglected its duties."

    By the judge's accounting, while on probation, PG&E has set off 31 wildfires, killing 113 Californians, burning nearly 1.5 million acres, and destroying almost 24,000 structures. The utility is blamed for some of the biggest fires in the state's history, including last summer's Dixie Fire in Northern California, which burned more than 963,000 acres and destroyed 1,300 structures.

    The utility is also charged in the Zogg Fire in 2020 that killed four people. The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deadly Camp Fire of 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise.

  • Tim Moniz, Paradise Resident:

    My house, and all my things that I have been saving and collecting from family members that are passed away, and pictures are all gone. And that kind of hurts the most. It really does. But, otherwise, what do you do?

  • Deanna Isenhower, Paradise Resident:

    It's kind of surreal. It's hard to believe that this was once a beautiful place, and I lived here and loved it, and now it looks like a war zone.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The judge wrote that systemic problems at PG&E remain entrenched. The company has failed to inspect and maintain outdated transmission lines. The judge deemed inadequate its reliance on outside contractors to clear vegetation around its power lines.

    Judge Alsup has recommended that the company be split into two separate utilities.

    PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said in a statement that "We acknowledge that we have more work to do," but added that they have become a fundamentally safer company over the course of probation.

    The majority of the survivors, the judge noted, are still waiting to be compensated, and some remain in mobile homes. Only $7 million of a $13.5 billion fire trust fund have been disbursed to date.

    Joining us to talk about PG&E's troubled history is Brandon Rittiman. He is an investigative reporter with ABC10 in Sacramento who has covered extensively PG&E's role in California's wildfires.

    Brandon Rittiman, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    Your reporting has really focused on the power of PG&E politically in California, so I want to start there. As we talk about what wasn't done in this probation period, according to this scathing final report from this judge, how does that power play into the lack of change we have seen in improving safety when it comes to California's wildfires and this company?

  • Brandon Rittiman, Investigative Reporter, ABC10:

    Well, thanks for having me, and thanks for the question.

    The power of the company is really difficult to overstate. It has a natural monopoly over electricity to 40 percent OF the state of California. It's one out of every 20 Americans.

    And because they own the infrastructure, they have this monopoly certificate from the state. And that's really not been challenged in any meaningful way. In fact, the state government has really much — taken very much the opposite approach and helped prop up the company's books in response to these calamities, which happen to be criminal.

    And that's sort of where the rubber meets the road. This is criminal behavior, criminally negligent behavior, by this massive company that 16 million people have no choice but to buy their product.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, the judge really has a long rap sheet of not only what they did before the probation period, but during the probation period.

    So I guess one question is, why isn't the probation period being extended? If any individual criminal was to reoffend during their probation period in the ways this judge describes in this report, they'd stay locked up.

  • Brandon Rittiman:

    Yes, that's absolutely true.

    I mean, legal experts I have talked to say that, if PG&E was a person, it might be looking at a death sentence by now, if not a life sentence. But prison isn't an option for a corporate entity. So, even though we have corporate personhood baked into our laws, this idea that a corporate entity can be held accountable for crimes, just like a person can, the fact is, on the punishment side of that, there are no prison bars, there are no handcuffs.

    If the corporate entity is the one found guilty or pleads guilty — PG&E has done both — it's gone through jury trials and pleaded guilty.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We should say that PG&E has said that it will allow state regulators to continue to monitor its practices for five years.

    One of the other things that the judge said in this report is that there seems to be an ingrained culture of keeping meters turning, even during those power shutoffs that it has done in the last few years in an effort to prevent wildfires from being sparked.

    Does that suggest to you, as you read the report, that this is a company that is putting profits ahead of safety, and that California's regulators are allowing it to do so?

  • Brandon Rittiman:

    Well, what really suggests that, to me, is that they stood in a courtroom and pleaded guilty to 85 felonies and said they were going to stop putting profits over safety.

    Now what you have is a federal judge saying they haven't really done that. They haven't lived up to those commitments that they made. And that's what I think is really troubling to everyone.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Now, PG&E often says that climate change is really to blame.

    And there is evidence, of course, that climate change changes the behavior of wildfires. Does PG&E get any allowance, given the impact of the changing climate on California? And does the judge address that in his concluding remarks?

  • Brandon Rittiman:

    Absolutely, the fires are worse because of climate change, and also because of overgrown conditions out in the wildland.

    We have suppressed wildfire for more than 100 years in the West. So, if there's a big bonfire up there, everything is drier and warmer. And we have more days when it can burn. All of that is true. All of that is the reason why criminal negligence has to be snuffed out, so that we don't have a fire spark that is utterly preventable and lose more lives for no reason.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And finally, Brandon, where do payments stand for the many victims of these wildfires? And why has it taken so long for them to get relief?

  • Brandon Rittiman:

    Yes, so the — most, but not all of PG&E's wildfires were rolled into its bankruptcy, which it emerged from back in 2020, around the time when it pleaded guilty to the Camp Fire.

    And the victims — the scheme that was proposed to the victims, they got a yes-or-no vote, there weren't other choices — was, take your settlement half in cash, half in stock to be held by a trust, which would then sell the PG&E stock and use the money from the sale to pay you.

    So, you have the people who have lost their livelihoods, loved ones, homes in PG&E disasters essentially being put in the position of owning a big chunk of the company that burned them out. It's never been worth the amount that they were told. Some of them have gotten their first payments, but none of them have been paid in full. And they may not be for years.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And the judge writes that, meanwhile, PG&E management pays itself handsome salaries and bonuses.

    Brandon Rittiman, investigative reporter at ABC10 in Sacramento, all of his reports can be found at

    Thanks so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Brandon Rittiman:

    Thank you.

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