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PG&E could face serious charges for wildfires, Calif. prosecutor says

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could face criminal charges ranging from failure to clear vegetation to murder if the utility is found to have caused any recent California wildfires through reckless or negligent action, the state's top prosecutor told a judge.

In response to a request from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote that "starting a wildfire by recklessly operating or maintaining power lines could implicate three different categories of California criminal offenses."

U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked Becerra's office to assume a hypothetical situation in which the facts showed that "reckless" conduct by the utility, known as PG&E, played a role in the November Camp Fire or any other fire since PG&E's 2017 conviction on multiple counts stemming from a deadly pipeline explosion. Alsup is overseeing PG&E's five-year probation in the pipeline case and recently asked the utility if any of its actions in the Camp Fire might violate the terms of its probation.

"It is important to note that in California criminal law the word 'reckless' could describe various mental states," Becerra wrote in a Dec. 28 filing. "These states range from ordinary negligence, which generally will not support a criminal conviction, to malice aforethought, which is the mental state for murder."

Depending on the utility's mental state, Becerra said, charges could run the gamut from failing to clear vegetation from a power line or pole, both misdemeanors, to implied-malice murder if the circumstances demonstrate an "abandoned and malignant heart."

Lesser felony charges that might apply include involuntary manslaughter and burning forest land.

The Camp Fire burned more than 150,000 acres of California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire had claimed 86 lives as of Dec. 30 and destroyed 13,972 residences, 528 commercial buildings and 4,293 other buildings, the department said.