Fires rage as California officials keep talking about best safety measures

Panel calls for easing power company liability, an idea rejected this year and in 2018 by lawmakers.|

With at least eight wildfires raging amid the return of triple-digit heat Monday, Californians braced for another fire season after two tragic years: 146 lives lost in 16,000 blazes as part of a trend experts expect to continue as the climate warms.

Already, about 1,350 infernos this year have scorched more than 12,000 acres, with 236 new wildfires in the past week, including the 2,200-acre Sand fire in the Yolo County hills.

In Sacramento, state lawmakers and policy experts Monday continued talking about the now-familiar responses: easing the liability for power companies, creating a fund to compensate wildfire victims, making homes more resilient against fire, and clearing brush to make the state’s landscape less flammable.

With the bill-passing deadline a month away, the 13-member Senate Select Committee heard testimony on policy recommendations proffered Friday by the five-member Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery that was charged with reviewing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 52-page April report, “Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future.”

No decisions were made, and the major topics - including liability and victim compensation - also had been considered at the Senate panel’s first public hearing a month ago.

For the second time in two hearings, nobody suggested how much money should be set aside for fire victims and none of the senators asked that question.

Carla Peterman, the governor’s appointee and chairwoman of the commission, summarized the state’s hazardous conditions, including fires sparked by power lines and home insurance premiums rising, and told senators “the status quo is not sustainable.”

“We need to prepare for a range of scenarios,” she said, noting that the last two brutal years could be a one in 20-year or a one in 200-year experience.

The wildfire cost and recovery commission’s top recommendation - replacing California’s strict liability standard for electric utilities with a “fault-based negligence standard” - was said to be good for ratepayers by reducing their liability and good for utilities by lowering the cost of capital and reducing the risk for bankruptcy.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a similar measure last year, when lawmakers ignored what was scorned as a bailout for the state’s largest utility PG&E, and Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, the committee chairman, dismissed the idea last month.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, questioned Monday why easing the standard - which holds utilities responsible for wildfires caused by their equipment regardless of negligence - would make power companies take their responsibility more seriously.

Utilities “haven’t been willing to do what they need to do now,” she said.

Peterman said the motivation for better safety performance would come “from understanding the likelihood and prevalence of these fires” and a “better understanding of the risk.”

PG&E, which declared bankruptcy in January, was found responsible last month for the 153,336-acre Camp fire that ignited in November and destroyed nearly 15,000 homes, virtually obliterating to the town of Paradise.

If the liability standard were not changed, the commission recommended creation of a wildfire victims fund that would include contributions from utility shareholders and ratepayers and would “treat wildfire victims fairly.”

If utility contributions were based on the size of their territory, PG&E “would bear a greater share of the cost,” Peterman said.

Michael Wara, a lawyer, Stanford University scholar and Senate appointee to the commission, said the fund would create “a moat between wildfire costs and ratepayers” and would provide faster payment to victims.

Ricardo Lara, state insurance commissioner, said the fund should help support wildfire mitigation measures, which generally means steps like thinning forests, clearing brush and prescribed burns.

“Whatever we decide, let’s make sure it has a robust mitigation component,” he said.

Wara, a Marin County resident, said the vegetation in part of Marin, once 20 tons per acre, is now 120 tons. “That’s a time bomb,” he said.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, posed a question that essentially went unanswered.

“The question is, do these recommendations put us on a path to achieve deliverables,” he said.

Dodd chaired a 10-member committee that held a similar series of public hearings last year culminating in approval of a wildfire response bill by the Senate and Assembly late at night on Aug. 31, the final day of the legislative session.

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