California lawmakers meet in Santa Rosa to press utilities on wildfire prevention

The Senate subcommittee hearing, including several North Bay lawmakers, largely sidestepped the most pressing question for authorities in last October’s fires, chiefly whether failed power equipment, including lines and other gear owned and maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., may have been to blame for starting the most destructive blazes. Scores of North Bay residents have sued PG&E, alleging poor maintenance led to power equipment failures that started the fires.

The state’s fire chief, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, said he was hopeful his agency’s examination of the fires’ causes would be complete in several months, acknowledging, however, that it could take much longer given the complexity of the puzzle facing investigators.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jerry Hill, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Gas, Electric, and Transportation Safety, told fire victims that he had scheduled the hearing in Santa Rosa to keep the spotlight on the plight of fire survivors.

“You’re the reason we are here today,” said Hill, D-San Mateo. “We will not forget this in Sacramento as we work on reforms in the coming months and years ahead. And we will work to identify and hold accountable any entity found responsible for these devastating fires.”

Hill steered the panel’s attention Friday to the inner workings of electric power providers and the state regulators tasked with overseeing them. A new era of ever- more destructive wildfires — as Gov. Jerry Brown has declared, calling it California’s “new normal” — demands stronger oversight, lawmakers said.

“What we’ve always done will no longer work in the 21st century,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “We need to make a promise to residents that wildfire prevention is on the top of everyone’s list. The Legislature and all utilities must be focused on preventative actions to ensure that wildland fires and what we have seen here in Sonoma County and throughout our region never happen.”

Officials from the state Public Utilities Commission and representatives of California’s largest utilities, including PG&E, emphasized a shared desire to avert wildfires. All agreed the fire season has become year-round and requires a major culture change to come up with modern solutions.

“It’s not that we don’t prepare for it, but the scale, the severity, the granularity defeats our resources, and frankly our ability to prepare,” said Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, which is conducting its own investigation into October’s fires. “We always know that however much we do, there’s a bigger storm coming.”

This month, after more than a decade, the PUC adopted a new state map that prioritizes high- hazard zones for wildfires. In those fire-prone areas, utilities must ramp up brush management and maintain electric lines on a more routine basis, in addition to creating annual fire-prevention plans.

But lawmakers also criticized utility regulators for the long timeline required to implement new regulations on utilities.

“We were not designed to be speedy,” Picker said in response. “We were designed to slow things down so that everybody could participate … to form the best policies. I share the frustration, but I don’t think that it’s up to me to change state law and the state Constitution unilaterally, so I look to your direction on that.”

Precautionary measures such as a grid shutdown in the event of high fire risk conditions could help, but neither Cal Fire nor PUC officials said they had the authority to order such moves. The utilities have the sole discretion over their infrastructure and would be responsible for making that call, absent some new state authority or agreement, officials indicated.

Utility representatives said they would support establishment of general criteria to guide them in such cases.

“This is a statewide problem,” said Pat Hogan, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations. One entity is not going to fix it; it’s really that we need to work together on a shared solution. But I think this is absolutely an area where we can potentially standardize.”

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric also had representatives on hand Friday.

Lawmakers closed the public hearing reiterating a long-term commitment to the region’s recovery, and improving the state’s preparation to avoid catastrophic wildfire.

“We have a moral obligation to learn from the past and to act,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who was joined on the panel by Assembly members Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, and Cecilia Aguiar-Currry, D-Winters. “You can’t see the fear and pain that these fires have caused and sit by idly and do nothing. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet, but we can do better, we must do better and we will do better.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at On Twitter @kfixler.

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