California must do more to protect the public from wildfires

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

By Bill Dodd

(San Francisco Chronicle, 7-27-18)

A committee of California lawmakers this week took the first step toward addressing one of the biggest problems facing our state — the stunning rise in devastating wildfires. 

In the first in a series of hearings expected to play out over the next month, members of the bipartisan Senate-Assembly conference committee in Sacramento heard from experts on a range of issues — from the role of electric utilities and climate change, to what might be done to prevent future fires to finding a way to make needed investments.

As the committee co-chairman, I’ve learned that it’s a complicated problem. There are still many questions that need to be answered. But we must do something. Failure to act means significant consequences for communities, fire victims and utility ratepayers. And I have been clear about my overriding priority — we must protect the public, both from fires and bearing undue costs. 

Among other things, we will evaluate the recent wildfire preparedness proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown, which contains some good ideas about hardening the electric grid against extreme weather and forcing utilities to keep lines free of vegetation — so often the cause of fires. These are concepts I’ve already introduced in my own legislation this year. 

The governor has also proposed tough new penalties on utilities that fail to comply with the standards. And I agree — irresponsible utilities must be held accountable.

Brown’s plan also calls for modifying the legal doctrine that holds a utility financially responsible for damages, even if it acted with reasonable care. That concept has drawn significant discussion. As with the other issues, it will be the Legislature’s job to carefully examine the impacts, hearing from the public and stakeholders before making any decision. Again, my measuring stick will be what’s best for communities, victims and ratepayers — past, present and future. 

Toward that end, getting an independent analysis to determine the true tipping point for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. entering bankruptcy and the resulting ratepayer impact will be an important factor. We all want PG&E to pay for its irresponsibility and bankruptcy could boomerang on ratepayers. 

Nothing will change utility liability in the fires that ravaged Northern California in 2017, charring large parts of my district and causing the tragic loss of life. Cal Fire has completed investigations into 16 of those blazes and determined PG&E lines were the cause. In 11 of those cases, evidence of criminal violations was found. Clearly, PG&E has violated our trust and must pay for that. 

But liability is just one piece of the puzzle. Preventing future fires and the enormous human and financial costs that come with them involves so much more. Ideas from the first hearing ran the gamut — from thinning forests to using technology to predict where fires will strike. I was encouraged by progress in San Diego, where officials say preparedness efforts have prevented fires.

I have advocated a holistic approach that demands better utility planning and accountability, more frequent compliance inspections and temporary power shut-offs in extreme weather.

My hope is to incorporate many of those ideas in the final legislative product. Clearly utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission need to be forced to step up and ensure they’re meeting public safety needs before disaster strikes. We can all agree that business as usual is, in a word, unacceptable.

There’s no silver bullet. But we are determined to do what’s best for California and do so in an open and transparent process.

State Sen. Bill Dodd represents California’s 3rd Senate District, which includes all or portions of Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Yolo, Sacramento, and Contra Costa counties. You can learn more about Sen. Dodd at