PG&E’s Removal of Fire Evidence Draws Warning From Federal Judge

A treePG&E Corp. removed from the site of a deadly Northern California fire caught the attention of a federal judge who has cautioned the company to preserve evidence.

State regulators are investigating whether PG&E’s equipment caused the September Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings. On Friday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ordered the utility not to “destroy or despoil” any evidence it transports from the site, but to make sure it is “preserved with records sufficient to show its exact locations when removed.”

In his role overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation, Alsup is reviewing information he asked the utility to turn over to determine any role it played in the Zogg fire, which burned more than 56,000 acres in Shasta County, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of San Francisco. He has been among PG&E’s toughest critics, previously referring to the company as a “recalcitrant criminal” for its role in California’s lethal wildfires.

Alsup’s singling out the tree, which PG&E carried away by helicopter, is not as random as it might seem. The collection and examination of evidence from the 2018 Camp fire proved critical to securing PG&E’s guilty plea to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history.

PG&E said in an emailed statement that it is cataloging items left behind by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, including sections of a pine tree. A helicopter was required due to the terrain, the size of the pine pieces and the need to extract the root system, according to the statement.

The company emerged from bankruptcy on July 1, having agreed to pay $25.5 billion to settle damage claims from a series of deadly blazes blamed on its equipment.

Thecase is U.S. v. PG&E, 14-cr-00175, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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