(TNS) - When a special legislative committee held its first public hearing in response to the North Bay wildfires two weeks ago in Sacramento, there were eight major wildfires burning across California.
When the 10-member bipartisan panel met again Tuesday, the number of conflagrations had doubled, and the marauding Mendocino Complex fires had scorched more than 292,000 acres in three counties or more than 450 square miles.
The hearing, however, was decidedly low key, as representatives from the state’s big three investor-owned utilities and two public power providers, including Healdsburg’s municipal utility, recited the steps they have taken and plan to take to mitigate future wildland blazes.
“There is no normal, there is just uncertainty,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said as the hearing opened, noting she had just visited Alaska, packing clothes for chilly weather, and encountered an unnerving series of 75-degree days.
Underscoring California’s predicament, Michael Pickler, the Public Utilities Commission president, said the latest mapping showed that 40 percent of the state is in high-risk fire areas, owing largely to an advancing drought.
Jackson, whose district suffered the 280,000-acre Thomas fire in December, said someone must hold the utilities’ “feet to the fire” to enact the “best practices” to prevent wildland blazes.
Jackson said she thinks power companies “make business decisions that are contrary to best practices.”
The committee, formed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders, has until Aug. 31 to come up with legislation dealing with wildfire preparedness and prevention, as well as the tinderbox of reforming the state’s longstanding policy that requires utilities found responsible for causing fires to pay for private property damage even when they are not deemed negligent.
The policy, called inverse condemnation, is the topic of the committee’s next hearing on Thursday.
“We have to make our victims whole, No. 1,” Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, said Tuesday.
PG&E is pushing hard, with Brown’s support, for a change in the policy that would exempt PG&E from paying damages for fires in which the utility had acted responsibly.
Cal Fire has determined PG&E’s equipment was responsible for causing 16 major fires, and had allegedly violated state code by failing to keep tree limbs clear of its equipment in 11 of those blazes.
Kevin Dasso, PG&E’s vice president of electric asset management, described technical improvements, including a 24/7 emergency operations center and a new plan to shut down power lines under extreme fire conditions.
In response to questions from state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, Dasso said PG&E has problems gaining access to more than 120 million trees on private property that could fall into its power lines.
The utility could also use help, Dasso said, in getting at problematic trees on protected state lands.
PG&E has invested $15 billion in the past five years to upgrade its transmission and distribution systems, including use of no-wood poles and insulated conductors, Dasso said.
“I can’t say that it’s enough,” he said.
Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, the committee co-chairman, challenged Dasso’s assertions, pointing to the 11 fires cited by Cal Fire and referred for potential prosecution to local district attorneys.
Dasso said he had not seen the results of Cal Fire’s investigations, but said he believed PG&E’s fire prevention measures had met the highest standards.
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