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An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019 in Paradise, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The 2018 Camp Fire—caused by faulty PG&E equipment—killed at least 84 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, California, seen here in a 2019 aerial photo. Last year, PG&E's former CEO pleaded guilty to 84 counts of felony manslaughter. The utility was fined $3.5 million. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Wildfire Victims Lead Calls for Tougher PG&E Criminal Penalties

"The power company is the biggest serial killer in state history, and all it gets is fines?"

Brett Wilkins

Wildfire survivors, relatives of victims, and progressive advocates this week called for tougher penalties against Pacific Gas and Electric Company on the one-year anniversary of the Zogg Fire and days after the California utility giant was charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter, in connection with the deadly blaze.

"Until you're going to lock up the company the way you lock up a person who's a criminal, then they're not being treated like people."
—Meriel Wisotsky,
daughter of wildfire victim

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett on Friday announced 31 charges against PG&E over the wildfire that killed four people while burning more than 56,000 acres and destroying over 200 buildings in Shasta and Tehama counties. An investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire) determined earlier this year that the blaze was caused by a pine tree falling on PG&E power lines during heavy winds. 

"Those that lost loved ones need justice. They need someone to fight for them," Bridgett said. "They need to have those that are responsible for killing their loved ones to be held criminally responsible, especially since this fire was completely preventable."

As survivors and victims' loved ones marked the anniversary of the Zogg Fire on Monday, PG&E announced in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that it will "vigorously defend itself" in the case. The worst punishment the company could face is a $10,000 fine for each victim, plus other penalties and legal costs.

That is not sitting well with relatives of victims of fires caused by PG&E or with progressive advocates for reform.

Zach McLeod—whose wife, 46-year-old Alaina Rowe McLead, and 8-year-old daughter, Feyla McLeod, died while trying to escape from the Zogg Fire—called for changes in the law to enable the prosecution of individuals responsible for corporate crimes.

"A little 8-year-old girl. My daughter. Our daughter. My wife. Running for their lives," McLeod told KXTV. "Someone needs to be held accountable. No family should have to go through this. No little girl and mother should have to face what they faced."

"It's very frustrating. There's more than one individual that should be held accountable," McLeod added. "It would be nice to see some laws be changed a little bit to make it easier to go after corporations like this when they continually do wrong and hurt people."

"California needs tough legislation to hold corporate executives criminally responsible, including jail time."
—Amar Shergill,
California Democratic Party

Phil Binstock, whose father was one of the at least 84 people killed by the 2018 Camp Fire—which destroyed the town of Paradise and caused $16.5 billion in damage—told KXTV that the "system needs to be changed."

Last June, PG&E's then-CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire. The company was fined $3.5 million, the maximum allowable by law—$10,000 per victim plus legal costs and a fine for unlawfully causing the disaster.

"A $10,000 fine, that's what my father's worth in the criminal justice system," lamented Binstock.

Meriel Wisotsky, whose mother, Ethel Colleen Riggs, died in the Camp Fire, told KXTV that "$10,000 is nothing to PG&E."

"There's no motivation to solve the real problems," Wisotsky added. "Because they can buy their way out of it. Until you're going to lock up the company the way you lock up a person who's a criminal, then they're not being treated like people."

Seeking to avoid billions of dollars in potential wildfire liability losses, PG&E declared bankruptcy in early 2019. Meanwhile, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation granting PG&E additional financial protections. Corporate accountability advocates say such policies and actions send a message of impunity.

"PG&E has an established history of killing people, destroying communities, and polluting our environment due to purposeful negligence and willful neglect," Amar Shergill, chair of the progressive caucus of the California Democratic Party, told KXTV. "California needs tough legislation to hold corporate executives criminally responsible, including jail time."

McLeod wondered how PG&E is able to remain in business after causing so much harm.

"The 84 counts that they were charged with in Paradise," he said, "I don't even understand how they're an operating company after that."

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