Close to Home: California needs to commit to wildfire safety and victims
Your home burns down, but you’re still required to make mortgage payments on the house that was destroyed. You’re renting a place to live while you wait for the insurance settlement to be completed, but rents are skyrocketing and the “alternative living benefits” your insurance company provides for two years will soon come to an end.
Meanwhile, the utility company accused of destroying your home is declaring bankruptcy, sending its stock into a tailspin and jeopardizing any hope of a settlement that compensates victims, some 70 percent of whom are under-insured.
This is happening to the many thousands of us who were victims of the deadly fires and mudslides California has suffered over the past two years.
Joined by the attorneys who represent us, many of us have united as a group called Up from the Ashes to give victims a voice in Sacramento and to guarantee our plight is not forgotten. Making sure victims are made whole is a moral imperative for us and should be an increasingly urgent financial obligation for the governor, legislators and state regulators.
Last year, we helped stop legislation that would have shielded utilities from financial responsibility for the damage they caused. This year, we’re lobbying to ensure that victims are fairly compensated for their losses, while ratepayers are protected against unfair rate increases. Like victims, ratepayers shouldn’t be made to shoulder the cost for utility mismanagement.
Another goal is to make sure regulators do a better job of holding the utilities accountable for operating safely and responsibly.
First, the judge presiding over the PG&E bankruptcy needs to ensure that a settlement is reached quickly and that the utility’s victims are the first in line for compensation. A protracted settlement would put victims at increasing risk of personal financial disaster, further damage the company’s stock by creating more investor uncertainty, and benefit only the attorneys.
Second, the governor, Legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission need to endorse a federal court order demanding that PG&E take immediate action to improve its safety record “to protect the public from further death and destruction resulting from PG&E-caused wildfires.” In making his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup called PG&E’s efforts to prevent wildfires “dismal” and said the company should be doing much more to prevent fires.
State policymakers and regulators need to join the judge in demanding the same of PG&E and take swift action to ensure that the company truly embraces a new safety culture. Moreover, the bankruptcy court needs to make certain that PG&E is restructured in a way that guarantees responsible management and safe operation.
The slow-moving Public Utilities Commission bureaucracy needs to be reorganized as well, so it can do a better job of policing the utilities and protecting ratepayers and be better able to move quickly and aggressively to ensure compliance and transparency.
Lastly, the governor and Legislature need to adopt a recommendation Up from the Ashes offered last year - that the state create a “wildfire disaster fund” for future emergencies which, hopefully, will never again be as fierce or destructive as the fires we’ve suffered.
Up from the Ashes’ proposal would have our utilities provide the initial investments into the disaster fund and also require them to cover a specific amount first for each utility-caused fire. Only then could the wildfire disaster fund be used.
Hopefully, with an aggressive safety plan with accountability, we will never again see a fire as fierce or destructive as the fires we suffered in 2017 and 2018. If one does happen, victims will not be worrying about whether they can rebuild or that their benefits for temporary housing might run out.
But only a new commitment to safety on the part of the utilities can make this happen, and we need a new commitment on the part of government to ensure it does.
Patrick McCallum is co-chair of Up from the Ashes, a coalition of Northern and Southern California wildfire victims and their legal representatives. He lives in Santa Rosa.