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Environment Report: Fire Prevention and Liability Discussions Are Heating Up

A state wildfire commission has recommended changing the law so utilities are provided with some relief from legal liability in the event that their equipment helps cause a fire. But lawmakers are hesitant that the move would be seen as giving utilities a pass.

Around 20 homes at the Rancho Monserate Country Club near Fallbrook were burned in the Lilac Fire. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Fire season, which now covers much of the year in much of the state, has begun in earnest as California dries out and heats up.

State officials and utility companies are struggling to prevent the next major wildfire while still trying to deal with wildfire-related fallout from last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California. That includes grieving families, a ruined town and a bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric.

In the past few days, PG&E began doing preventative blackouts across parts of its service territory to ensure that its equipment can’t cause or contribute to a fire when the weather turns too hot, too dry or too windy.

San Diego Gas & Electric has had an aggressive blackout program for several years, which explains in part how the company has been able to prevent destructive fires since 2007. But the company isn’t sure the streak will last. Its internal modelling suggests that eventually a fire will linked to its own operations.

The California Public Utilities Commission approved all the major utilities’ “wildfire mitigation plans” late last month. Most attention focused on PG&E’s plan, which allows for blackouts across Northern California during high-risk fire conditions. PG&E’s blackouts are likely to get more attention than SDG&E’s, though, because PG&E is a much larger company — its first blackout affected as many customers as SDG&E’s largest.

So far, there isn’t a clear appetite by state leaders to give the state’s major power companies the thing they most want out of all this: relief from legal liability in the event that their equipment helps cause a fire.

Under an unusual legal principle known as “inverse condemnation,” California power companies are responsible for damage they cause, even if they are not negligent. The liability can be enormous, hundreds of millions of dollars for San Diego Gas & Electric following the 2007 fires in San Diego and bankruptcy-inducing billions of dollars for PG&E following the Camp Fire.

A state wildfire commission has recommended changing the law so utilities aren’t at as much risk. But instead of changing the inverse condemnation laws, which would likely be seen as giving power companies a pass, lawmakers, including the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, appear to be interested in first creating some kind of statewide fund to pay for wildfire-related damages.

Eight in 10 Californians are worried that wildfire-related damages are going to drive up their power bills, according to a recent poll.

  • The San Francisco Chronicle takes a sympathetic look at some people that don’t get a lot of it: utility workers. “The Camp Fire intensified a crisis for PG&E, which had already been blamed for causing several disastrous fires in 2017, and employees in the fire zone had to reckon with the immediate fallout. People hurled trash at workers. They spit and yelled. They slashed tires on PG&E trucks and painted ‘85’ — the number of dead — in red on the trucks’ doors, according to a union representative.”
  • While a lot of attention is on utilities, a new KQED investigation shows that the state’s wildland fire agency, Cal Fire, isn’t able to ensure that homeowners are following “defensible space” rules that require them to keep flammable plants and debris away from buildings. In San Diego, county officials are working to increase the number of inspectors. In recent years, Cal Fire has only been getting to San Diego homes only once about every five years, said the region’s top fire official, Tony Mecham.

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

In Other News

  • The CPUC’s colorful leader, Michael Picker, recently announced he plans to step down this year. Picker told the San Francisco Chronicle that he’d been thinking about leaving the role almost as soon as he started the job.
  • The privately owned plant in Carlsbad that makes ocean water drinkable appears to have been sold. The plant provides about a tenth of the region’s water through a long-term contract with the San Diego County Water Authority. (Bloomberg)
  • There is a fight brewing over a corner of Mission Bay. Environmentalists want to turn part of the area into a wetland that would help water quality, wildlife and protect against sea level rise, but is running into opposition from owners of an RV park. (Union-Tribune)
  • A city auditor’s report found that “customer service representatives inside San Diego’s Water Department are not adequately trained on computer programs, were not given clear guidelines on how to deal with customer complaints, and were not given performance measures.” (NBC San Diego)
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