California Wildfire Concerns Will Continue

A lone chimney standing at the site of the Camp Fire. (Jim Wilson/New York Times.)

A lone chimney standing at the site of the Camp Fire. (Jim Wilson/New York Times.)

With 2018 culminating as California’s worst fire season in over a decade, the blazes’ devastating toll has created multiple immediate issues for legislators and the general public alike.

California utility company PG&E has announced plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to its inability to pay an estimated $30 billion liability stemming from its culpability in numerous fires from 2017 and 2018, surpassing the sum of its insurance and assets. The company’s CEO, Geisha Williams, announced her resignation on January 13. State officials have identified PG&E’s electrical equipment as the cause of at least 17 of 21 of Northern California’s major wildfires in 2017, and a group of Camp Fire survivors has initiated a lawsuit against the company claiming that the blaze originated from one of PG&E’s transmission towers in Butte County.

Nevertheless, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 901 into law in 2018, making it easier for PG&E to pass on the cost of its liabilities to its customers. In assessing damages, regulators must consider the utility company’s “financial status and determine the maximum amount the corporation can pay without harming ratepayers or materially impacting its ability to provide adequate and safe service.” If state regulators determine that PG&E behaved reasonably in conducting maintenance, costs that PG&E shareholders cannot afford will be paid for using state-issued bonds to be repaid by ratepayers. While this prevented PG&E from facing bankruptcy last year, it will also result in increased rates for PG&E’s customers.

The consideration of PG&E’s financial status in determining the maximum amount it can pay, however, applies only to fires “with an ignition date in the 2017 calendar year.” Currently, PG&E possesses no such protections from its 2018 liabilities, resulting in its bankruptcy announcement. Lawmakers’ next action remains unclear, as some are critical of what they perceive as a bailout for PG&E. Yet, financial constraints may hinder PG&E’s ability to engage in additional preventative measures such as the timely trimming of trees near power lines.

The devastating destruction from California’s wildfires shows no sign of slowing down in the coming years, as climate change has increased the severity of the state’s fire season. Average temperatures have increased dramatically across the state, with Southern California having seen an increase of about three degrees Fahrenheit in the past century. Warmer air more efficiently removes water from trees, shrubs, and grasslands, resulting in drier conditions. California’s dry season has also grown longer in recent years, exacerbating the risk of larger fires. Researchers have estimated that anthropogenic climate change has resulted in the burning of an additional 4.2 million hectares of land from 1984-2015.

These wildfires’ increasing size, coupled with more and more Americans moving to the wildland-urban interface, defined as residential areas constructed in or near lands prone to wildfires, has drastically increased the risk of fire in residential areas. In 2010, there were 12.7 million more houses and 25 million more people living in the wildlife-urban interface than in 1990. A variety of causes, including a lower cost of living and proximity to nature, have contributed to this demographic shift. While California has imposed strict regulations on the materials used in structures built in the wildland-urban interface since 1991, those constructed in prior years are not held to these standards, leaving many homes vulnerable.

While mitigating global climate change should remain a top priority, doing so will likely have minimal impact on the severity of California’s wildfires in the short run. In the meantime, state regulators should do more to ensure that electrical utility companies such as PG&E conduct the proper maintenance and preventative measures on electrical equipment, as well as invest in additional cameras and sensors to more quickly detect fires. In addition, a tax credit incentivizing the retrofitting of older homes to today’s fire safety regulations would serve to decrease damage from wildfires. Without these preventative measures, conditions will remain primed for further devastation from California’s wildfires.