Are government agencies or private utilities to blame for state’s wildfires?
By JIM MATTHEWS
The question I pose to you is this: Who should home owners sue if they lose their home in a wildfire?
In Northern California, the target was painted on the back of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). After last year’s horrific Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and claimed the lives of 85 people, PG&E was blamed. The utility was also blamed for 17 of the 21 major fires in the region in 2017, according to the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in late January this year because of all the lawsuits. Think about that. California’s largest utility filed for bankruptcy because of wildfires.
So fearful of the litigation train heading down the tracks, Southern California Edison has gone to strategic blackouts during high winds to protect against fires sparked by arcing lines and transformer failures. Powering down is the solution. On just Thursday this week, over a half-million people had their power shutoff – including most that were miles from any possible fire danger.
The city-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) held a joint press conference with the mayor of Los Angeles to assure the LADWP-caused Getty Fire – which destroyed over a dozen homes – was an “act of god.” Never mind it was an LADWP line that arced after a eucalyptus branch fell on the lines causing the blaze. The press release assured the public the city utility did all required clearing to prevent such an event from happening. It wasn’t responsible.
So government is not culpable when they are responsible for the fires, but private utilities are?
There is no question PG&E was at least partially responsible for fire the ravaged Paradise, but blame for the loss of live and property in that blaze – in all contemporary fires in California – goes well beyond the ignition point.
In Paradise, which is an unincorporated city in Butte County, there is a paved single road into and out of town. That is a safety nightmare, and many of the deaths were on that clogged route when traffic came to a halt. Better zoning and planning could have eased this problem.
Butte County brush and tree clearance laws are poorly enforced, especially in rural areas. The state and federal government did not have effective clearance zones around the rural town. So the fire raced through town and its rich fuel load.
But this is also true at every mountain community in Southern California. Part of that is because the residents fight clearance (they like the trees) and mostly because government agencies don’t put this as a high budget priority. Utilities, like PG&E and Edison, often try to do effective clearance around their facilities that run through state or federal lands, but they often face months or years of delays to do work because of environmental laws and other restrictions on the work. If they see a need to clear beyond the allowed buffer (like LADWP should have done with the eucalyptus tree that fell on their line), they either don’t do the work (still meeting the letter of the law) or have to apply for special permits and wait longer.
The U.S. Forest Service is perhaps the biggest culprit in most wildfires. Literally decades of mismanagement or lack of management have led to forests that don’t have effective firebreaks, thinning (which DOES slow the speed of fires), or timber harvests. All of those things can and once did slow or stop fire progression. When used in conjunction with today’s air assault on flames, the massive fires could be tamed. If the agency was able to spend just a small fraction of the emergency funds in burns up fighting wildlifes each year on prevention and other management measures, it could solve the problem in a decade.
The USFS spent $2.9 billion combating wildfires in 2017, 12 times more than in 1985. The 2018 number for wildland firefighting costs on just a federal level was $3.1 billion.
Studies show that firebreaks can and do work. Clearing can and does work. Defensible space is essential to protect homes. There has been an increase spending under the Trump Administration within federal agencies to do more fire prevention, but most of the new money doesn’t kick in until 2020. State and municipalities can do more in communities that abut open space to make sure they do their job and residents do their part.
So who do you sue? Who is responsible?
Is the homeowner, who builds in the middle of a wildland tinderbox, at all culpable? Is it fair that utilities pass on the costs of litigation settlement to ratepayers who live in more defensible places? Is it fair that government utilities and agencies don’t take responsibility for any of the problems they directly cause? Are private utilities, beholden to stockholders, liable for the corners they might cut for a profit?
All are responsible, but only the utilities are being sued. It is then the public who has to suffer with increased rates and insane blackouts. This is primarily a government management and regulatory failure on all levels.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.