One year after the deadly October 2017 wildfires, federal, state, and local representatives met in Calistoga to update the public on fire prevention measures they’ve taken since then, and measures that still need to be worked out.
On Oct. 9, State Sen. Bill Dodd hosted a forum that took place at the Calistoga Community Center, a few miles from where the Tubbs Fire started on Bennett Lane the night of Oct. 8, 2017. It was among a series of Northern California fires that all started about the same time and were the most destructive in state history.
Joining Dodd were Representative Mike Thompson, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon, Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann, Napa County Chaplain Lee Shaw and Monica Stevens of Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch.
In many ways the fires were a wake-up call for government representatives. Dillon called it “A new day for government with new issues to help in the future. We learned so much, as always happens in these situations,” she said.
Many of the new fire prevention and safety measures have been reported on in local news this past week, including siren alert systems and fire-watch cameras installed throughout Napa Valley, which Dillon spoke about. She also encouraged residents to use evacuation tags issued by the county, to be placed on mailboxes or doors to notify responders that a residence has been vacated in an emergency.
Canning described a city-wide siren system that the city is “actively pursuing. It’s about as old-school as you can get but, a lot of us sleep with our phones turned off, and it is the most effective,” he said.
Asked for an update on Clover Flat Landfill in Calistoga, the site of five fires within the last year, Biermann said the owners of the landfill “have met the most stringent requirements and … everything we asked for is in place.”
Thompson noted that in “hyper-partisan times” it has been a little difficult securing federal funds for fire recovery efforts, but said that the last approval has been met for Lake County Fire relief at 90 percent of share cost.
Dodd discussed his wildfire legislation, SB 901, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September.
The bill broadly expands state prevention efforts while allowing utility companies to shift some fire-related costs to their customers. It is aimed at preventing bankruptcy for PG&E, which faces billions of dollars in liability if investigators determine its equipment caused the Tubbs Fire that was blown by strong winds into Santa Rosa, destroying 36,000 acres, more than 5,600 homes and killing 22 people before being contained Oct. 31.
The controversial bill — critics call it a bailout for PG&E investors who can pass the costs of their negligence on to ratepayers and victims of the fires — creates a special process for the 2017 fires, which caused more than $10 billion in damage.
According to the bill, if PG&E is blamed for the most destructive fires and passes along costs to customers, they’ll appear as a surcharge on monthly utility bills for the next 20 years.
The cost is unknown because it’s not clear which fires will ultimately be linked to PG&E and what its final settlement will look like, but Dodd said the average residential ratepayer would pay an estimated $5 for every $1 billion dollars that PG&E must finance.
“I take real exception (to calling the bill a bailout). The bill prevents victims from becoming victims again. If PG&E files for bankruptcy, the ratepayers get hammered,” Dodd said. “Five dollars is better than all costs borne in case of bankruptcy. I welcome any suggestions to hold the utilities’ feet closer to the fire.”
The bill also boosts government fire-protection efforts by $1 billion over the next five years, providing funds that could help clear thousands of acres of dense, dry forests and brittle coastal brush, for forest health, fire prevention and reduction of “fuel,” or trees and vegetation.
Looking towards the future, residents can expect more fire-related legislation, Dodd said.
Another key issue government representatives all levels must solve is bilingual translation in emergency systems and the current lack of it.
“It’s really been challenging,” Dillon said.
To date, English to Spanish translators have disagreed on details such as what level of speaker to translate to, which eventually will have to be standardized state-wide, Dillon said.