By MARC ROME
In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the effects of climate change are already happening, making natural events like wildfires more intense. A month later, the Camp Fire, fueled by Diablo winds and drought conditions, incinerated Paradise, Calif., killing 88 people with nearly 800 unaccounted for. More than 16,000 structures, mostly homes, were destroyed, forcing at least 52,000 to evacuate and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless throughout the 150,000 acre burn zone in Butte County. It is the deadliest fire in the state’s history, and was nearly as destructive as the previous 10 record setting California fires combined.
As the fires raged in Paradise, an area covering hundreds of miles was an ominous and forbidding landscape full of smoke darkened skies that affected millions with hazardous air or nearly two weeks. Air Quality Indexes measured from upwards of 400 in Sacramento and 238 in San Francisco. Smoke plumes were detected as far away as Philadelphia.
Factoring in the Woolsey fire in southern California, which left three dead and upwards of 2000 homes and structures destroyed or damaged, nearly 150,000 people have been displaced, leading to a humanitarian/housing crisis in a state where affordable housing is already extremely difficult to find for working and poor people. Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s housing agency, said, “Big picture, we have 6000, possibly 7000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County. I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.”
Lawsuits have been filed by victims against PG&E for their suspected responsibility in starting the Camp Fire. The AP reported, “PG&E told state regulators that it experienced a problem on a transmission line in the area of the fire just before the blaze erupted. In its filing Thursday [Nov. 8] with the state Public Utilities Commission, it said it had detected an outage on an electrical transmission line. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.” PG&E’s practice of cutting labor costs (which boosts profits) led to poor maintenance of its electrical grid, and, according to state fire investigators, caused 17 of 21 wildfires in 2017, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, which killed 24 and destroyed more than 5300 homes.
A series of lawsuits have also been filed against Southern California Edison alleging that the Woolsey fire began due to poor maintenance of their equipment near the flashpoint. To shield three California utility monopolies—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—from financial ruin, Governor Brown recently signed SB 901 to pass off the utilities’ liabilities to rate payers for fires attributed to equipment owned by these billion-dollar corporations. PG&E alone is facing $15 billion in liabilities for the 2017 fires, and SB901 allows them to issue bonds paid for by increasing fees for ratepayers.
Their liabilities may be as high as $30 billion if it’s determined that the utility is responsible for the Camp Fire, which could lead to PG&E’s collapse without another state government bailout. SB 901 was proposed by Brown and passed the State Assembly and Senate with virtually no resistance from Democratic Party legislators (nine Democrats opposed it in total). There is no comparable bailout legislation for the victims of the most destructive fire in U.S. history in a century [. . .]