California Reckons With the Cost of Wildfires to Come


SACRAMENTO – On a day when the latest California wildfire threat necessitated precautionary measures, a recently formed committee of state officials sent a new blueprint for adaptation to ever more destructive fire seasons.

In the report that was approved on Friday, the committee said that California's fragmented approach to forest fires "wastes" resources and threatens the viability of state utilities. Instead, the panel recommended that legislators create a fund and other means to broaden the costs of fire prevention and compensation between taxpayers, residents of areas affected by fire, insurance companies, and government agencies.

Wildfire survivors and lawyers at a committee hearing in Sacramento expressed frustration at what they called a continuing lack of accountability for the state's largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, which was blamed for several deadly fires. But a member of the committee, Michael Kahn, said the proposed changes to state liability, compensation and insurance policies "have no form or form that prevents the utilities from accessing".

The five-member panel, the Commission for Catastrophic Costs and Natural Disaster Recovery, voted unanimously for its findings to be addressed to the governor and state law.

The action coincided with a new sign of the continuing potential for a catastrophe on its way to a subsequent wildfire season. Officials reported an increased fire hazard until Saturday afternoon in Napa, Solano and Yolo Counties, north of San Francisco, due to low humidity, high winds and dry vegetation. On Friday evening, PG & E Shut off the power for 1,600 customers to reduce the danger, and others may face similar power outages, possibly prolonged days.

Although the report approved on Friday, it does not specify a future dollar amount for the cost-sharing fund it requests, but the committee said it should be a "sufficiently large fund to be meaningful", but should not encourage "perverse risking behavior" hesitated by utilities or homeowners to invest in safety measures such as removing trees and brushing or shielding power lines.

Patrick McCallum, who barely escaped his burning house during the 2017 Tubbs Fire in the wine region of Northern California, said the commission paid too much attention to thorny political issues such as liability while the claims of victims still had to be paid. McCallum, lobbyist in higher education through trade, now represents the Up From the Ashes advocacy group of the victims.

"What is going on now for the victims is terrible," said Mr. McCallum, who walked out of his house with only boxer shorts on the night of the fire. He finds himself happy that he has a new home, but struggling with the loss of family heirlooms and endless paperwork adds to the toll, he said.

"You have to replace everything," he said.

One question is how the committee's recommendations can be taken into account in the parallel efforts of the legislature, a & # 39; strike power & # 39; from the governor's office; and agencies including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, known as Cal Fire, and the California Public Utilities Commission.

Government Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders have expressed an interest in setting up a natural disaster fund and streamlining the process of sorting costs after a fire, according to a May 29 statement from the governor's office. But they are still exploring one of the most controversial issues: changing a government facility with facilities responsible for fires caused by their equipment. The committee suggested that companies should only be held liable if they are negligent.

"These recommendations go across the street to the blender, right?" Said Pedro Nava, a member of the Wildfire Commission, Friday at the meeting in Sacramento City Hall, near Capitol. "There will be a certain amount of cherry picking."

The bankruptcy proceedings of PG & E, possibly the largest contributor to a fund for victims, can complicate the prospects for rapid action. A federal bankruptcy judge, who probably had to enter into significant financial obligations, gave PG & E until September to propose a corporate reorganization plan, and utility shareholders abandoned their own vision of a billions of dollars settlement fund.

PG & E told the wildfire committee in a written statement that the current system "makes utilities the last resort" and undermines the reliability of state energy. The committee's report warned that other utilities could also go bankrupt after future fires unless changes were made.

Terry McBride, whose house and three rental properties were burned down in the 2015 Butte Fire, said PG & E's bankruptcy prevented her and her daughter from acting according to plans they had prepared for a new home on their northeastern land. California.

"We've been living in a camp trailer for almost four years and haven't seen a dime," said Ms. McBride, a fifth-generation resident in densely forested Calaveras County. She and many of her neighbors negotiated settlements at the end of last year, she said, who were put on hold when PG & E filed for bankruptcy in January. "We're just a bit stuck."

Shari McCracken, chief administrative officer of Butte County, which includes Paradise, testified to a previous committee who heard that the Campfire had left "a magnitude of devastation that people simply cannot fully comprehend." Mrs. McCracken was reached by phone and said she could not attend Friday's meeting because the province still housed about 50 households displaced by the fire, in addition to the untold number of people in cars, churches , tents or other temporary locations.

Although many have left the area, Ms. McCracken said the province strongly supported the commission's insurance proposals, saying she could benefit those who decided to stay and rebuild.

"That's a big concern here," she said. "People are canceled or, you know, $ 10,000 quotes for homeowners insurance."