California Wildfires

            In a rare acknowledgment of corporate wrongdoing, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) recently pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter arising out of its failure to maintain a transmission line that sparked the devastating Camp Fire in 2018.  In the aftermath of the public backlash against PG&E, and faced with increasingly severe wildfires in the state, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), hosted workshops in August of this year to seek the public’s input on the safety practices of the state’s three largest investor-owned electric utilities (IOUs), including PG&E, to mitigate California’s evermore devastating wildfires.  Implementation of the workshop results, titled the 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, has been tasked to the CPUC’s newly created Wildfire Safety Division.  Among the most impactful action items of the Plan will be (1) to standardize data collection across utilities, while (2) increasing local outreach efforts to better direct the public during such a dangerous time (D.20-05-051).

Given that 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred since the year 2000, engagement of utilities and the public through these workshop was both laudable and long overdue.  However, the Division’s focus on data collection and local outreach to enhance preparation for an exacerbated fire season fails to address the root cause of the mess we are in: climate change.  As a warming climate produces longer and hotter summer dry seasons and more frequent droughts, wildfires during California’s fire season will become more severe and destructive.

            Even though the Wildfire Mitigation Plan will provide a more structured response to exacerbated wildfire risks, it will be insufficient to prevent future fires.  Given that the Camp Fire caused $8.5 billion of damage, developing action items on preventative measures in addition to reactive processes would be time and effort well spent.

As a concerned citizen within PG&E service territory, I will continue to be an advocate for the CPUC to be involved in one of the best preventative measures currently undertaken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE): controlled burns. This fire management method prevents serious wildfires by burning in a controlled manner the excess brush and foliage that otherwise would otherwise serve as fuel for more serious uncontrolled fires. This method was in fact widely used in pre-historic California and was largely successful up until the 1980s.  However, budget cuts and failure by Congress to renew the requirements allowed the lapse of this fire control method.  Interestingly, controlled burn strategies to maintain forest health continue to be lobbied for at the national level, but systematic implementation continues to remain elusive. However, as the regulatory body overseeing the safety of utility operations, it is well within the CPUC’s authority to require electric utilities to work more closely with CAL FIRE to get us back on track to a time before California became known as the wildfire state.

Wesley Clark

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