SACRAMENTO — With eight major wildfires burning across the state Wednesday, a special legislative committee held its first public hearing in response to last year’s fiery North Bay disaster, including the contentious political and economic issue of how much liability PG&E should bear for damages estimated at $10 billion.
The bipartisan committee, co-chaired by state Sen Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and including Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, heard from a panel of witnesses and dozens of people in a standing-room-only crowd at the State Capitol.
Formed by Gov. Jerry Brown and top legislative leaders, the committee has until Aug. 31 to come up with legislation dealing with wildfire preparedness and prevention, as well as possible reform of the state’s longstanding policy of inverse condemnation, which requires utilities found responsible for causing fires to pay for damage to private property even when they are not deemed negligent.
Underscoring the need for action, Thom Porter, a Cal Fire region chief, told lawmakers there have already been more fires and more acres scorched this year than in 2017, citing climate change as the cause.
“The new normal is no longer new,” he said. “It’s normal.”
Porter, who has 30 years’ experience as a forester, said he had “never seen such volatile conditions across the state.”
In the midst of the hearing, state Sen. Jeff Stone, a Riverside County Republican, announced the Idyllwild area had been evacuated in the face of a fast-growing brush fire.
A suspected arsonist was detained in Hemet in connection with the fast-growing Cranston fire after Cal Fire officials reported the man’s vehicle to local authorities, Hemet police officials said.
Another press for action came Tuesday from Brown, who sent the committee chairmen a proposal that would soften the liability standard for utilities, allowing judges to determine “whether the utility acted reasonably” in awarding damages in cases in which electrical equipment is a “substantial cause of the fire.”
Last week, a PG&E spokeswoman said the utility giant wants to see the policy include a “reasonableness standard,” relieving the company of liability for fire damages if it has acted reasonably.
Cal Fire has determined the utility’s equipment was responsible for causing 16 major fires across Northern California in October. In 11 of those blazes, the utility allegedly violated state code by failing to keep tree limbs clear from its equipment, according to Cal Fire, which forwarded its findings to local district attorneys for potential prosecution.
PG&E has said it has about $840 million in insurance coverage and expects to be held liable for at least $2.5 billion in fire damages and possibly much more. Total damages have been estimated at $10 billion.
“Frankly, PG&E violated our trust and must be held accountable,” Dodd said in his opening remarks.
The senator, who represents thousands of survivors from last year’s fires, said he believes the legislation ultimately drafted will make California “a safer place.”
Wood, who called the governor’s proposal a “starting point,” said his concern ever since the fires is that survivors “should be made whole.”
The governor and lawmakers have asserted that any new laws would apply only to fires since Jan. 1.
Wood also suggested that Wednesday’s hearing “may be premature” because Cal Fire has not issued a finding on the cause of the Tubbs fire, the most destructive of the October blazes.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here