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Feds settle with PG&E over 2004 forest fires with fine of almost $30 million
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California's largest utility and two tree-trimming subcontractors have agreed to pay nearly $30 million to settle federal lawsuits over the cause of wildfires in two national forests, federal authorities said Thursday.

Federal prosecutors filed the lawsuits after the 2004 fires. One burned 7,700 acres in the Eldorado National Forest in El Dorado County, while the other burned 3,300 acres across the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity national forests in Trinity County.

The blazes scorched the forests, but there were no reports of structures being damaged or destroyed.

Federal officials sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and its subcontractors, blaming the fires on power lines that were damaged by fallen trees.

The wildfire settlement is the largest involving the San Francisco-based utility, but is dwarfed by the $102 million settlement reached in 2008 with Union Pacific Railroad after a fire in Plumas and Lassen counties in 2000, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said at a news conference.

The U.S. Attorney's office that covers much of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges in eastern and northern California has collected more damage repayments from wildfires than any other district nationwide, Wagner said. The district includes all or parts of 12 national forests in a dry area with a high volume of visitors, he said, accounting for a large number of wildfires. Nearly half the district is federal land.

Since 2006, the office has recovered $193 million, of which $51 million was collected in the last two years, he said.

"I would venture to say that we have more success in litigating wildfire cases than any other group of attorneys in the country," Wagner said.

PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said PG&E will pay $6.1 million, while the remaining $23.4 million will be paid by subcontractors that were hired to trim trees around the utility's power lines.

Western Environmental Consultants Inc. will pay $11.4 million to cover damage from the Trinity County fire in far Northern California. Davey Tree Surgery Co. paid $12 million for its role in the El Dorado County fire, which was near Kyburz, a mountain community between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe.

"Since the incidents eight years ago, we've made significant changes in our vegetation management program," Ehlers said. "It's showing progress."

She could not say what changes had been made or whether there have been fewer fires or less damage as a result. Telephone messages left with the two subcontractors were not returned.

The settlement covers the cost of replanting trees and other recovery efforts, firefighting costs, and the value of the timber that could have been sold had the trees not burned.

PG&E has paid at least $16 million to the state and federal governments since 2009 to settle damage claims over fires caused by power lines, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

In a separate action, the U.S. Forest Service's plan to log 169 acres of old growth trees burned in the Trinity County fire prompted a lawsuit from environmental groups, which said the threatened northern spotted owl still uses the burned area for habitat.

The Forest Service dropped the plan after a federal district judge in San Francisco granted a preliminary injunction blocking the sale in 2005. That was the first time that opponents stopped a timber sale after the Bush administration issued new rules making it easier to log after wildfires.