California Wildfire Victims Don’t Want Utilities’ Fault Reduced

By PAUL ELIAS | July 13, 2018

Victims of California’s deadliest wildfires joined politicians on Wednesday to urge state lawmakers to stop trying to overhaul laws that hold utility companies accountable for blazes.

Gathering in Santa Rosa in front of an empty lot where Brad Sherwood’s home once stood, the group said it’s concerned about a newly formed legislative committee that will consider cutting utilities’ responsibility when their equipment causes fires.

With just six weeks left in the legislative session, they are worried lawmakers may move quickly to help utilities.

Smoke from wildfires in the Sonoma Valley makes its way toward the Napa Valley, in this view from the Carneros wine region, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Investigators have determined that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. equipment started several of the 2017 wildfires in Northern California wine country that killed 44 people. The company says it expects to pay more than $2.5 billion.

Utilities are now on the hook to pay damages in California if their equipment started the fire, even if they aren’t negligent. PG&E and other utilities say the law is unfair and they want it wiped from the state’s books.

Geisha Williams, PG&E’s chief executive officer, called the law “bad public policy” and said the way California decides on who should pay fire victims needs a significant overhaul.

She said severe fires are the “new normal” amid climate change and as California deals with chronic drought.

Williams said the San Francisco-based utility is fighting for the change in the Legislature and in the courts.

Williams said the San Francisco-based utility is fighting for the change in the Legislature and in the courts.

On a June 21 conference call with analysts announcing that PG&E would be liable for at least $2.5 million, Williams was asked about whether the utility faced the possibility of bankruptcy. She didn’t answer directly, but alluded to the utility’s filing for bankruptcy in 2001 during the state’s energy crisis.

“Many of the lawmakers in California vividly remember the energy crisis,” she said. “So the topic does come up in our conversations.”

A committee of state lawmakers is considering the issue and other ways to help utilities pay for fire damage, including a proposal to let utilities use taxpayer-supported bonds to pay legal damages.

PG&E is leading the lobbying effort in Sacramento.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said the issues are too complicated to resolve in the six weeks remaining for the Legislature to pass the bill.

Northern California residents who lost homes in the 2017 fires said the legislative wrangling is frustrating amid their daily fights with insurance companies, contractors and lawyers.

“This is bad timing on PG&E’s part,” Sherwood said. “I should be worrying about carpets and counter tops in my new house instead of what’s going on in Sacramento.”

The news conference in front of Sherwood’s Santa Rosa lot was organized by the California State Association of Counties, which opposes the utilities’ push to reduce their liability.

Association chief Graham Knaus said the liability law is an important tool in helping fire victims recover. Eliminating it also would hinder counties from recovering their own damages, Knaus said.

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