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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Two wildfire survivors joined elected supervisors from three counties and a local government advocate Wednesday in calling on state lawmakers to withhold action this year on changes in the law governing public utility liability for fire damage to private property.

Standing in front of a fire-leveled lot in Larkfield, the survivors and local officials challenged the legislative effort led by Gov. Jerry Brown that is shaping up as the most controversial post-fire issue in Sacramento: How to apportion the estimated $10 billion in damages from the October wildfires.

PG&E has been called out by Cal Fire as the owner of equipment that ignited 12 of the major wildfires in October, with a state determination on the cause of the Tubbs fire, the most destructive blaze, still pending.

The utility giant is lobbying lawmakers for relief from a state legal doctrine, called inverse condemnation, that requires utilities to pay for damage to private property even if they are not deemed negligent.

It’s a dense legal issue, but a critical one for survivors like Brad Sherwood, owner of the home site where Wednesday’s press conference was held, with hammers banging on his neighbors’ replacement homes under construction.

“Bad timing, PG&E, to try to pull this one over on us,” said Sherwood, who works as a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

About 140 homes in his neighborhood were obliterated as the Tubbs fire roared down the Mark West Creek corridor from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in four hours the night of Oct. 8.

He and others at the press conference called on lawmakers to defer action until next year, while a panel convened by Brown aims to pass legislation by the end of August.

Phil Demery, a former Sonoma County public works chief, lost his Fountaingrove home in the blazes that in Sonoma County killed 24 people and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes. Across Northern California, 44 people died in the October fires and more than 6,200 homes were burned.

Changing the liability laws “will have a direct impact on our ability to stay in our community and rebuild our lives,” Demery said. “We can’t let that happen.”

Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, a lobbying and policy group for local government, said, “We will not stand for any changes to current liability laws that let investor-owned utilities off the hook while local governments and the citizens we represent are left holding the bag.”

PG&E said last month it expects to be held liable for at least $2.5 billion in fire damages, and possibly much more. It has about $840 million in insurance coverage. The utility has warned it could face bankruptcy if damages climb too high.

Geisha Williams, the utility’s CEO and president, recommitted last month to fighting inverse condemnation, calling California’s treatment of wildfire liability a “flawed construct” and “simply bad public policy.”

Brown and top state lawmakers announced last week formation of a conference committee that would craft legislation aimed at strengthening disaster preparedness and setting “appropriate policies to respond to the increasing wildfire danger.”

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, co-chairman of the committee, is intent on producing legislation in time for the Aug. 31 legislative deadline. Dodd’s bill, SB 901, will embody whatever the committee produces, said his spokesman, Paul Payne, calling the current measure “a starting point for discussion.”

In an email, Dodd said he was “happy to work with the California State Association of Counties and other stakeholders to make comprehensive improvements to our electric system so that we reduce the risk of wildfires and save communities from tragedies like those that struck my district over the past year.”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

None of what Dodd has proposed would change current state law around wildlife liability for utilities, according to Payne.

But CSAC is concerned by one sentence in the bill, which says “current legal standards should be refined” to allow the courts to determine liability of utilities that have “acted reasonably” in maintaining their transmission systems.

Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email the “loss of life and homes in these extraordinary wildfires is heartbreaking and we are doing everything we can to help Sonoma County rebuild and recover.

“At the same time, we’d like reform of the state’s liability laws and specifically inverse condemnation,” she said. Allowing “unlimited liability undermines the financial health of the state’s utilities” and is “bad for customers and bad for the state of California.”

James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said at the press conference that inverse condemnation “makes utilities come to the table very early on and protects victims and survivors. If there’s a different mechanism for doing that, let’s talk about it.”

Gore said he was not intending to vilify PG&E, but also said, “You can’t put the cost all on your ratepayers and keep the profits in different areas and then protect that.”

Underscoring the high stakes in Sacramento, a group called BRITE said Wednesday in a press release that it supports “reforming the current system of inverse condemnation” to protect the interests of utilities and their customers. Building Resilient Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s Economy listed more than 1,000 member organizations and individuals, many of them representing business and none representing a city or county government.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon and Mendocino County Supervisor Georgeanne Croskey also spoke at the Santa Rosa press conference.

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