In January, when he announced his proposed fiscal year 2018-19 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown also promised to create a task force of foresters and scientists to address the growing threat of wildfires in California.
This announcement was only a few months after the harrowing and devastating series of wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres in both Northern and Southern California.
“I will convene a task force composed of scientists and knowledgeable forest practitioners to review thoroughly the way our forests are managed and suggest ways to reduce the threat of devastating fires. They will also consider how California can increase resiliency and carbon storage capacity,” Brown said in January.
In May, just prior to issuing his budget revision, Brown issued an Executive Order to improve community protection from wildfire threats.
Among the directives in the order was doubling the acreage of treated land from 250,000 to 500,000 acres, and training and certification programs for prescribed burning. The revised budget included funding, which the Legislature approved to implement these actions.
He also promised to convene a Forest Management Task Force within a few weeks.
The Task Force, composed of state and federal officials as well as several interest groups, held its first meeting June 11. The agenda comprised four items. The May 10 EO, watershed improvement and the two recently completed state plans — the Forest Carbon and Strategic Fire.
Several weeks later, Brown and the Assembly and Senate leaders jointly announced their intent to collaborate on legislation “to strengthen disaster preparedness and … appropriate policies to respond to the increasing fire danger.”
Last week, California Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) announced the appointment of the five senators to serve on the Conference Committee. One of these will be Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Riverside County), who represents the Hill.
The bill, Senate Bill 901, will be the vehicle intended to encourage public utilities to develop their plans to address wildfires and study the value of de-energizing electric lines during wildfire threats.
The committee has been asked to expand on this issue. Cal Fire investigations have attributed the cause for 16 of last fall’s Northern California fires to electric power and distribution lines conductors, and failure of power poles, mostly equipment and property of Pacific Gas and Electric. The utility is concerned that if it were held fully liable for the costs it might need to declare bankruptcy.
So, among the issues this legislative committee will address is how to assess fair costs both for wildfire prevention and suppression, and how to determine accountability.
Besides a fresh mind on this topic, Stone felt that not being a member of the insurance or utility committees was one reason he was asked to serve.
“More than 5,000 structures, an Idyllwild [the size of this town], burned last year. It’s a significant amount of money — billions of dollars,” Stone said. “We will investigate the causes, responsibility. Other firms lease space on utility poles. Is their equipment safe? This could throw PG&E into bankruptcy and affect millions of ratepayers.”
He hopes the committee will form a consensus before the current session ends before the end of August.
According to Larel Rosenhall, writing for CALmatters, “The biggest fight will be over liability — who pays for billions of dollars of damages from the loss of so many homes, businesses and lives?” Not only will the utilities and their stockholders have a voice, but ratepayers may see costs passed on to them.
Besides this legislative committee, the California Public Utilities Commission has also taken steps to address wildfire issues. On July 12, the CPUC ordered all investor-owned electric companies to comply with certain rules and customer notification requirements before de-energizing electric facilities in cases of emergencies. De-energization of an electrical circuit shuts off power to all customers served by that circuit.
The order requires that utilities meet with the local communities, which de-energization may affect. The CPUC also will require, if possible, customer notifications before implementing a de-energization. “Utilities have 30 days to submit a report to the CPUC outlining their plans regarding public outreach, notification, and mitigation of customer impacts due to de-energization and the resulting power shut-offs,” according to the CPUC press release.
Within 90 days, utilities are required to convene De-Energization Informational Workshops.