Governor says California could take over PG&E after wildfires linked to utility

02 November 2019

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USA – California could take public ownership of Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility which has been blamed over a series of deadly fires, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January, in the wake of billions of dollars of claims related to wildfires. The company has recently cut off the power to thousands of households in a largely unsuccessful attempt to prevent fires that have again wracked the northern part of the state.

“PG&E as we know it may or may not be able to figure this out,” Newsom said at a news conference late on Friday. “If they cannot, we are not going to sit around and be passive. If Pacific Gas and Electric is unable to secure its own fate and future … then the state will prepare itself as back-up for a scenario where we do that job for them.”

Newsom said PG&E needed to be “completely transformed, culturally transformed, operationally transformed” with a greater focus on safety. The company has been criticised for sparking wildfires through its power infrastructure. Global heating, by drying out vegetation, is also contributing to fiercer wildfires in California. Flames have been fanned by strong winds.

Some progressive congressional Democrats have been pushing for public ownership of utilities such as PG&E in order to improve safety.

“The for-profit motive does not work,” Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley in Congress, told HuffPost last week. “The public utility is a much better option because you’re not having to worry about maximizing shareholder returns and you will make the safety investments that are necessary.”

The fallout from the latest fires is playing out as firefighters attempt to stamp out the last of the recent outbreaks.

On Saturday, authorities lifted evacuation orders for a farm community as firefighters made progress on a large wildfire in southern California that continues to threaten about 2,500 homes and buildings.

Ventura county officials allowed an unknown number of residents in Somis to return home after firefighters contained 20% of the Maria fire, which has burned nearly 15 square miles and forced nearly 11,000 people to evacuate.

While fire activity subsided overnight, winds and low humidity were expected to make another difficult day for firefighters. Moreover, an unexpected area of cloud moved in from the south, threatening to bring lightning strikes and wind gusts of 20mph to 30mph over the region, the National Weather Service said.

Police in Santa Monica urged beachgoers to seek shelter indoors after lightning was reported over the city.

Crews battled to keep the flames away from orchards and farms in the rural area. Three buildings were destroyed.

The fire erupted on a hilltop north-west of Los Angeles on Thursday during what had been expected to be the tail end of gusty Santa Ana winds. The cause was under investigation but there was a troubling possibility that an electrical line might have been involved.

Southern California Edison said it re-energized a 16,000-volt power line 13 minutes before the fire erupted in the same area. SCE will cooperate with investigators, the utility said.

In northern California, more people were allowed to return to areas evacuated due to the huge Kincade fire burning for days in the Sonoma county wine country. The 121-square-mile fire was 72% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

The tally of destroyed homes reached 175 and there were 35 more damaged, Cal Fire said. Many other structures also burned.

While the cause of the Kincade Fire hasn’t been determined, PG&E reported a problem with a transmission tower near the spot where the fire started.

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