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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

State lawmakers are set to pivot this week from their high-stakes discussions of power company liability in destructive wildfires to fire prevention — an issue weighing on millions of Californians choking on summertime smoke or the thousands who’ve been forced to flee one of the state’s 12 major wildland blazes.

The 10 legislators — six Democrats and four Republicans — on a special committee will consider issues ranging from how to clear 129 million dead and dying trees on state wildlands to curbing new development in high-risk areas where cities and towns border on woodlands primed for ignition by climate change.

The shift comes as California has seen more than 680,000 acres scorched by about 4,000 wildfires, far surpassing the acreage burned in all of last year. In 2017, 506,000 acres were blackened by more than 7,000 blazes, according to Cal Fire. The state’s five-year average is about 203,000 acres burned a year.

The figures underscore a new era of increased volatility and destructive force for wildfires, which have run rampant across Northern California thus summer, scorching more than 500 square miles across Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties and claiming over 1,000 homes and eight lives in Shasta and Trinity counties.

The latter blaze, the Carr fire that stormed into Redding, was sparked by the rim of a flat tire scraping the asphalt.

“We have more work to do,” state Sen. Bill Dodd, the Napa Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislative committee, said Friday, noting the range of potential ignition sources for wildfires.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat and committee member, hailed the turn to prevention and preparedness.

“We need to make California safer from fires,” said Wood, who lost dozens of constituents in the October wildfires.

“We need to find ways to help everyone protect their property better and we need to compel them to do so,” he said, acknowledging the latter step might prove unpopular.

Wood said he and Assemblyman Brian Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County whose district includes the area hit by the Carr fire, have been collaborating for four years to make the rural landscape safer through more aggressive vegetation management — an idea that has repeatedly come up in committee hearings.

“This is not a new topic for us,” Wood said. “It is past time for us to invest in ways to reduce the risk to California.”

Fire prevention, the topic of the conference committee’s fourth public hearing on Tuesday, will supplant, at least temporarily, the panel’s focus for the past three weeks on a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to ease the liability standard for utilities whose equipment sparks wildfires. PG&E along with the state’s other large investor-owned utilities and some public utilities have called for loosening the liability standard.

Thursday’s hearing had lawyers, lobbyists, public officials, insurance and utility officials debating the issue, with lawmakers bombarding a state Public Utilities Commission official with questions over the governor’s plan.

The panel, tasked with developing comprehensive wildfire legislation by month’s end, was divided over PG&E’s pursuit of relief from liability for 2017 Northern California wildfire damage that could run as high as $15 billion.

Several legislators said that the current policy assures PG&E has a strong incentive to maintain the safety of its power grid and to seek timely settlements with fire survivors.

“I’ve yet to hear PG&E talk about safety,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said in a frustrated tone Thursday while officials from other major utilities were testifying. “You’re talking about stabilizing the market.”

Dodd, who represents thousands of survivors from October’s blazes, said no one on the panel wants to absolve PG&E from paying for damage from fires attributed to utility negligence.

But consideration must be given to easing the current policy, called inverse condemnation, that holds utilities responsible for paying damages even when they have done nothing wrong, he said.

“It’s not about bailing out PG&E,” Dodd said in an interview Friday. The strict liability policy could prove “unsustainable for ratepayers,” he said, asserting that it could cause PG&E’s credit rating to fall, increasing the utility’s cost of acquiring capital, which would ultimately be passed on to ratepayers.

PG&E’s financial condition is “a legitimate concern that needs to be looked at by unbiased people,” Dodd said.

PG&E was excluded from the witness list at last week’s hearing, Dodd said at the time, because “from my point of view they had an ax to grind.”

Cal Fire has determined that PG&E’s equipment ignited 16 major fires across Northern California in October, and alleged the utility violated state code by failing to keep tree limbs clear from its equipment in 11 of the fires. The fire agency forwarded its findings to local district attorneys for potential prosecution.

“Yesterday’s laws will not protect us from tomorrow’s devastating wildfires,” Lynsey Paulo, a PG&E spokeswoman, said in an email.

The utility supports “comprehensive reform” that compensates wildfire victims, minimizes financial impacts on customers, protects PG&E’s ability to invest in wildfire prevention and climate resilience and “holds energy companies accountable if they don’t meet the state’s high safety standards,” she said.

Wood said he was not ready to drop the idea of adjusting the liability rules, but said he had not seen any such proposal “that could possibly keep fire victims whole.”

The governor’s proposal to ease inverse condemnation rules — a step adamantly opposed by insurance companies, trial lawyers, local government officials and utility watchdogs — would not apply to last year’s fires.

But Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon, who testified before the committee last week, called the governor’s proposal “a very radical policy change.” Speaking for the California State Association of Counties, which lobbies for local governments, Dillon said the group believes the proposal is unconstitutional.

Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, said changing liability policy “would lead to more fires” and would be tied up “in grinding litigation for years.”

John Fiske, an attorney representing Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and other cities and counties in litigation against PG&E, said the legal battle would last for years “and the committee will have done nothing to advance the ball.”

Some of their assertions appeared to be backed by a new opinion from the Legislative Counsel Bureau, a nonpartisan state agency, that said lawmakers can neither amend the state Constitution nor interpret it “in a manner that conflicts with a judicial construction.”

Fiske said that directly applies to inverse condemnation, which is rooted in both the Constitution and court rulings.

Dodd said he did not see the bureau’s letter “as a serious impediment to what we’re doing.” He took the letter to mean that amending inverse condemnation “may” violate the Constitution.

The committee’s proposed legislation “will not be exactly what the governor wants” but could include some of his concepts, Dodd said.

Suggestions that the committee drop consideration of liability rules come from “people who don’t want any change,” he said, including trial attorneys who are “trying to protect their legal fees.”

But Fiske, a lead representative of that camp, voiced support for the legislative panel’s work on wildfire prevention — a worthy objective that serves the interests of utilities, residents, businesses and lawmakers, he said.

For example, he noted, the state has millions of dead trees and an array of biomass plants that burn wood to generate electricity.

“Why haven’t we figured out how to get those trees into those plants?” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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