Are We in a Permanent State of Fire Emergency?

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Californians disagree about many things. But there seems to be one issue on which there is general consensus: The state cannot be allowed to continue catching fire!

These raging conflagrations are indiscriminate killers throughout every area of the state and likely to become even more numerous, more perilous and more costly.

Climate change and the longer lasting droughts are transforming highly flammable tree and brush-studded regions into giant tinder boxes which threaten how we live. No town or neighborhood is immune.

These crises which are becoming endemic also place inhuman burdens on and create enormous risks for firefighters and first responders who will always be undermanned against nature’s fury.

Over the past three years thousands of acres have burned to the ground with wild fires consuming homes, businesses, livestock, crops and wineries, people and pets and anything else standing in their way.

The recent blackouts ordered by PG&E in a half-dozen northern counties to prevent fires from spreading further while it repaired the transmission lines that caused the deadly sparks has only inflamed public outrage the more.

The term “firestorms” has entered the vocabulary for the first time as gale force winds send hot embers flying for miles.

Tiny Paradise, (ironically so-named) in Butte County (former population 26,000) disappeared entirely from the map after the so-called “Camp Fire” of November 2018 which reduced a thriving community to smoldering ashes. It has yet to recover.

The Kincaid fire (as of this writing still only 67% contained) has ravaged populous Sonoma County destroying 374 structures including 174 homes forcing evacuation of 200,000 residents. 177,000 acres are now totally incinerated. Miraculously there were no deaths reported and only a few injuries.

No region has been spared. Numerous communities in the southland have met a similar fate and even during the past week large areas of Los Angeles County (see the still smoldering “Getty Fire”) remained under “extreme red flag warning” attributable to a combination of the ferocious Santa Ana winds, low humidity and dry brush.

In Santa Rosa just north of San Francisco some residents have lost homes for the second time. These victims, many totally unprepared are interested in only one thing: finding a fix. Patience as authorities act to lessen the damage after flames have engulfed properties is no longer wearing down, it has worn out.

At the height of these events nearly 3 million Californians were without electricity as firefighters worked valiantly to rescue victims.

The logical culprit which is now the subject of multiple law suits and government investigations is PG&E. The embattled utility was founded in 1852 by three brothers as the San Francisco Gas Company.

25 years later saw the creation of California Electric Light, the nation’s first electric utility and the two came together in 1905 to spawn PG&E.

Since then the giant company has held a virtual monopoly on power distribution and now serves 16 million people throughout a 70,000 square-mile area in northern and central California. This makes it one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy providers in the nation.

While a hitherto rosy balance sheet shows that the company has earned billions over its long history, its growing liabilities since these disastrous fires broke out reveals a very different picture.

2019 second quarter losses attributable to shareholders topped $2.6 billion with earnings at $0.25 per share for the first quarter of 2019 compared to $0.86 per share for the same period in 2018.

PG&E is now officially bankrupt and these numbers are bound to scare off potential investors such as billionaire Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway who is among those talking to Gov. Gavin Newsom about a possible takeover.

However the declining profits and fast mounting liabilities pose risks that will make any prospective buyer very wary. Past wildfires bring the total liabilities to $30 billion!

A more promising scenario emerging simultaneously could involve a plan which has been put forward by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo who proposes converting the investor-owned private utility into a customer-owned cooperative.

Twenty other mayors including those in Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, Sonoma, Redding, Chico, San Luis Obispo and growing numbers of county supervisors have signaled they are ready to come on board.

This brought a quick retort from the company’s top brass, “PG&E’s facilities are not for sale and changing the structure of the company would not create a safer operation……this is not an optimal solution.”

But repeated episodes that leave millions of Californians groping in the dark for days is not a solution either while there is little evidence that sufficient steps are being taken to enhance public safety.

Predictably the partisan finger pointers have been quick to place the blame on the governor and the new Administration for failing to take the necessary corrective measures.

The truth is Newsom has been apparently engaged in round-the-clock meetings making it clear he is prepared to exercise all of his considerable executive authority if the bankruptcy case cannot be resolved in short order and PG&E fails to start making critical improvements.

A government take-over of the utility is within his power but not likely if there are other ways of handling the problem.

Of course when fires are raging uncontrollably just as with other crises governors (pun intended) will be the first to take the heat.

Some lawmakers are arguing that it is already too late, that time has run out for offering PG&E reprieves, there is no reason to salvage it and a total restructuring of the utility goliath is the only option.

Still others believe the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been much too lax in regulating PG&E’s operations, perhaps becoming a little too cozy with company leadership.

Transforming PG&E into a co-op if that is the optimal solution and summoning the best expertise to run it will not be easy. Unwillingness to reach accommodation will only create additional legal tangles that could sink the whole process even before it begins.

Newsom has proven in the past to be a tough negotiator. This will be a major test.

Closer examination indicates that these catastrophic events have been brewing for a long time as the company has failed to harden a crumbling infrastructure and was content to adopt less than the highest maintenance standards leaving large portions of its vast network extremely vulnerable.

This does not boil down to a lack of technological know-how or financial resources. PG&E’s customers have been footing rising bills for decades. They do not feel they should be paying for week-long blackouts when disasters strike because of what may amount to gross negligence.

State and local officials realize they must take decisive measures and soon before the next firestorms do their grim work.

Failing power lines and exploding transformers are not customer responsibilities. Clearing dead wood and underbrush are, and the undergrounding of electric wires is a potential remedy but impractical for many budget-starved communities.

One conclusion is inescapable.

We could be in a permanent state of fire emergency and there will be no quick fix. Nevertheless we cannot be issuing get-out-of-jail-free cards for shear incompetence and outright negligence that leads to repeated tragedy.

Nature is not controllable but allowing it to reduce more of California to rubble without maximum efforts to counter the inevitable is not the solution.

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