California approves power outages to prevent more wildfires

A home burns as a wildfire called Camp Fire rages through Paradise.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years as mega-wildfires have torn across our state, claiming lives and destroying property, sometimes in a matter of hours. Namely, we must adapt and respond to the effects of climate change — which is driving these monster infernos – and we must act now.

Clearly, a new sense of urgency is needed to solve this existential problem. As leaders in Sacramento, we must develop smart policy to keep our state safe. And as community members, we must all do our part, whether it’s clearing the brush around our homes or developing our families’ emergency evacuation plans.

But there’s more. Too often, our electric utility companies are to blame for the devastation. A recent investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found the deadliest fire in state history — the 2018 Camp fire — was caused by transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Unfortunately, Paradise is not the only town to suffer at the hands of utilities. Since 2015, California has endured 10 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in our history. Communities across our state have felt the consequences in recent years. And PG&E has been to blame on multiple occasions.

Facing some $30 billion in wildfire liabilities, PG&E declared bankruptcy in January. There is absolutely no excuse for the culture of negligence, mismanagement and hubris that has festered at PG&E for years, resulting in extraordinary costs to California’s communities.

We must hold the company accountable for its wrongdoing while protecting ratepayers. And we will insist that the California Public Utilities Commission step up its game in watching over companies like PG&E.

Still, there’s no doubt that climate change is making California’s wildfires more frequent and more intense. Across the state, fire season is getting longer. Individual fires are burning hotter and spreading faster, threatening more lives and property than ever before.

Now, as temperatures begin to rise, we must brace for the next fire season. Already, Cal Fire has been working to contain smaller fires in Yolo County and in Southern California – ominous signs so early in the year.

We must be proactive to reduce the impacts on ratepayers. By one estimate, without action, utility rates could double.

That’s why I’m working alongside my Senate colleagues to overhaul our disaster preparedness and emergency response protocols. We recognize that the status quo is unacceptable. Too many Californians face too great of risks. We need a comprehensive approach to minimize the dangers to our families, our homes and our economy.

As part of the solution, I’ve introduced half a dozen wildfire safety bills this year, including measures to place independent oversight of vegetation management around utility power lines, establish a statewide wildfire warning center, and increase compliance with the state’s 100-foot defensible space law. As chair of a bipartisan select committee tasked with reviewing and vetting wildfire responses, I am working with my Senate colleagues and Governor Newsom to build a thoughtful, effective response to this looming problem.

We took important steps last year to adapt, including strengthening our fire prevention and response capabilities. And we became the first major economy on earth to commit to 100 percent clean energy by the year 2045. But we have a long way to go in a short amount of time if we want to avoid even worse days ahead.

We urge all Californians to learn more about their specific fire vulnerabilities, and to take precautions now, before the next disaster strikes. We also hope that you will make your voices heard in the coming weeks and months as the Legislature takes on these monumental challenges. Because no matter what part of the state you call home, you have a stake in this fight.

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Bill Dodd represents California’s 3rd Senate District, which includes all or portions of Napa, Solano, Sonoma, Yolo, Sacramento, and Contra Costa counties. You can learn more about Senator Dodd at sen.ca.gov/dodd.