PG&E Corp., the California utility that went bankrupt after its equipment sparked deadly wildfires, has been charged with multiple crimes, including involuntary manslaughter, in connection with a 2020 blaze that killed four people.

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett on Friday filed 31 charges against the utility related to the Zogg Fire in northern California, about 100 miles from the Oregon border. Eleven were felonies, including four involuntary manslaughter charges. PG&E disputed the allegations.

“PG&E has a history of repeatably causing wildfires that is not getting better -- it’s getting worse,” Bridgett said during a press briefing broadcast online. “Those who lost loved ones need justice. They need to have those who are responsible for killing their loved ones to be held criminally responsible, especially since this fire was completely preventable.”

The criminal case in Shasta County is the latest blow for the utility, which emerged from bankruptcy last year after its equipment was blamed for starting some of the worst blazes in California history. If PG&E is found to have been criminally negligent in starting a fire, the company will be barred from accessing a state fund to help utilities pay for damages from blazes caused by their power lines. 

PG&E remains on criminal probation tied to a deadly natural-gas explosion in 2010. 

The Zogg blaze burned more than 56,000 acres (23,000 hectares) and destroyed 204 buildings. 

PG&E has accepted the conclusion from California investigators that a tree contacted one of its power lines and started the Zogg fire, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe said in a statement Friday. The utility has resolved many victim claims related to the blaze, she said. 

“We’re putting everything we’ve got into preventing wildfires and reducing the risk,” Poppe said. “Though it may feel satisfying for the company of PG&E to be charged with a crime, what I know is the company of PG&E is people, 40,000 people who get up every day to make it safe and to end catastrophic wildfire and tragedies like this. Let’s be clear, my coworkers are not criminals.” 

Bridgett also said Shasta County and four others have opened a joint investigation to determine PG&E’s possible criminal liability for starting the Dixie Fire, which began in July and has grown to become the second-largest wildfire in California history.

“It’s time that they change,” Bridgett said of PG&E, “and change does not come by doing nothing. We can not afford to do nothing.” 

PG&E shares fell as much as 1.6 per cent after the charges were announced.

Evidence suggests the Zogg Fire was caused by a tree falling on the utility’s power line, according to the judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation and federal prosecutors. 

Bridgett said PG&E contractors had marked the tree for removal because it was deemed hazardous, but it was never cut down. Poppe said two trained arborists had determined independently that the tree in question could remain.  

The company estimates total liability from the blaze at US$375 million, according to a government filing in July. That figure that could increase substantially with the costs of defending another criminal case.