Fixing the problems that cause wildfires

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

By Bill Dodd

(The Press Democrat, 6-17-18)

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s especially true in light of last year’s fire season, which underscored the need to think innovatively and proactively about fire prevention. Policymakers have a moral imperative to act – we cannot sit idly by and wait for the next disaster. That is why my partners in the Legislature and I are working to help victims and communities recover, while also taking steps to prevent fires, implement best practices and reduce harm. 

I have a bill requiring backup batteries in garage door openers so people won’t get stuck when the power is out and another piece guaranteeing people get a fair deal from insurers if they suffer losses. We have bills to do things like improve emergency alerts, de-energize lines in severe weather and harden the grid to prevent fires before they start. They are common sense measures we must take to safeguard against loss of life and personal property.

Fire authorities have found that downed Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines caused many of the October wildfires that heaped unparalleled destruction on Northern California. The findings last week from Cal Fire’s extensive investigations found evidence the utility violated its legal duty of care in numerous instances. Those findings are deeply concerning and underscore that the utility and their regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, did not do their job.

Now what? If a court finds PG&E violated criminal or civil law, they must be held accountable. That’s only fair. However, we cannot stop there; we also need to fix the underlying problem.

Senate Bill 1088 would require the Office of Emergency Services and CPUC to set tough new standards for infrastructure safety and to make sure utilities follow them. It also adds the critical step of mandated state audits to determine compliance with the plan. If they don’t comply, they get fined and won’t be able to recover from ratepayers. It is as simple as that.

What it asks is that utilities execute a comprehensive safety program to improve their massive, antiquated distribution systems, and that they are held accountable for those steps before a disaster strikes, rather than after.

Equally important is what the bill does not do. It doesn’t relieve utilities from any civil or criminal liability whatsoever. It also does not change the CPUC’s authority over rates, mandating any costs to harden the grid be reasonable and targeted. I’ve amended the bill to make that perfectly clear.

Errant utilities must be held accountable. My bill is about raising the bar and mandating oversight, so that we can prevent costly fires in the future that destroy communities and costs ratepayers. While there is no silver bullet for disaster preparedness and prevention, policymakers need to act boldly and make holistic improvements.

Senator 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 Senator Dodd at