Shifting to prevention issues and costs

In July, state legislative leaders created a special committee, the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee, to study and consider legislation “to strengthen disaster preparedness and … appropriate policies to respond to the increasing fire danger.”

Initially, the committee focused on Senate Bill 901, which Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, authored. The bill was intended to address the current state law and policy, which holds utilities accountable for fire damages that may have occurred from their equipment.

This policy is frequently referred to as “inverse condemnation.” The utilities argue that often fires occur regardless of actions they may have taken to prevent the fires. Therefore, holding them accountable for the costs is unfair and will affect ratepayers.

This spring, Cal Fire investigations 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.

After several hearings, the committee concluded that 2018 was not the time to address the issue of utilities’ liabilities or to change the law. Ratepayers, individuals and industry groups expressed concern over the possibility that the utilities would be given a bailout. Opposition to wholesale relief for investor-owned utilities was clearly evident.

Consequently, the committee turned to what efforts and policies the state could take to reduce the threat and damages from wildfires.

At the Friday, Aug. 24, hearing, Co-chair Dodd announced that the committee had shifted its focus to issues more directly related to preventing and fighting wildfires. “We can all agree that the status quo is unacceptable. We have a real opportunity to make progress,” he said, opening the hearing.

He then presented a two-page outline of the issues, which the committee planned to address in a bill before the legislative session ends Friday, Aug. 31.

Dodd read the list of nine issues and each member offered comments. Then the lobbyists, corporate and interest groups, lined up for their one-minute of comments.

The topics, which the committee hopes to include in its legislation this week, include utility fire prevention and planning; forestry and landscape management; California Public Utilities Commission reasonableness review; investor-owned utility ratepayer protection bonds; mutual aid; investor-owned utility executive compensation; jobs and worker protections; significant investment for forestry, fire, carbon reduction activities; and a blue-ribbon commission.

Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, the other co-chair, said, “This is a complicated and challenging process, navigating through important areas, whether it is protecting victims or ratepayers, looking at comprehensive safety solutions, or carving policy pathways to provide stability to utilities.”

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who knows of wildfire damage from the Thomas Fire and floods last year, noted that wildfires have a significant and deleterious effect on California’s economy. Tourism is discouraged.

At the Aug. 14 hearing, John Laird, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources and Ken Pimolott, director of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, both testified about the serious fire threats in the state’s forests and the need for resources to thin and manage these areas. The legislators obviously heard and were receptive to these pleas.

“The most at-risk part of the state [for the highest fire potential] is Southern California,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego. “We need to do everything in our power to protect those forests. We’ve learned about the value of thinning the forests. Hotly debated in the past and it is becoming very clear thinning is good for forests and the longevity of the forests … these things were added into the bill and that’s good. Biggest part of bill is prevention.”

And Sen. Jeff Stone, who represents the Hill communities, urged his colleagues to remember that Caltrans is a vital component of keeping highway landscapes clear and safe for emergencies.

Pacific Gas and Electric did not testify at the committee’s first hearing; but Southern California Edison did. Its representatives described the steps it has taken to both identify potential fires as well as reduce their effect.

SCE discussed its efforts to replace wooden poles with metal and the number of remote weather stations it has installed, including at least two in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Although several legislators have introduced bills to prevent cancellation of fire insurance or to slow the increase in premiums, no action has been taken on these bills.

The Legislature’s session ends midnight Aug. 31. Any new legislation must be passed by both the Assembly and Senate to be sent to the governor for his approval and signature. He has 30 days to decide to sign or to veto the bill.

The committee wants the Blue Ribbon Commission to issue a report to the Legislature and governor in 2019 after it examines and forms recommendations on “… more effective ways to socialize the costs of damages from wildfires and whether to set up a fund to assist in the payment of costs.”