California’s ambitious plan to stop deadly wildfires may not be enough

US-FIRE-WEATHERAs California fire officials roll out an ambitious plan to thin the state’s overgrown forests in an attempt to prevent another year of deadly wildfires, a growing body of research suggests their success may be limited.

The foremost strategy, proposed in a 28-page report to the governor last week, is to clear trees and brush near vulnerable communities. Thirty-five areas, including about a half dozen in the Bay Area, are targeted in the safety blitz.

But while fewer trees can mean less fuel for fires, researchers have found that it can also mean undermining a forest’s natural defenses and increase the fire risk. For example, thinning can let in sunlight that dries out the woodlands or create space for new, less fire-resistant vegetation to emerge. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle 

PG&E to file for bankruptcy following devastating California wildfires

A home burns as the Camp fire tears through Paradise, California on November 8, 2018. - More than 18,000 acres have been scorched in a matter of hours burning with it a hospital, a gas station and dozens of homes. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

California’s largest power company intends to file for bankruptcy as it faces tens of billions of dollars in potential liability after massive wildfires devastated parts of the state over the past two years, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Pacific Gas and Electric said Monday that declaring insolvency is “ultimately the only viable option to restore PG&E’s financial stability to fund ongoing operations and provide safe service to customers.”

The California wildfires, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes, have led to a surge in insurance claims. PG&E estimates that it could be held liable for more than $30 billion, according to the SEC filing, not including potential punitive damages, fines or damages tied to future claims. The company’s wildfire insurance for 2018 was $1.4 billion.

The PG&E bankruptcy promises to be more complex and political than most bankruptcies, pitting fire victims, ratepayers, bankers, insurance companies and renewable-energy providers against one another. Homeowners with property insurance will collect from their insurers, and a person familiar with the bankruptcy planning said that hedge funds are already offering to buy settlement claims from insurance companies. …

Click here to read the full article from the Washington Post

Will Regulators Break Up Scandal-Plagued PG&E?

VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is destroyed by brush fire as Santa Ana winds help propel the flames to move quickly through the landscape on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A California Public Utilities Commission report that Pacific Gas & Electric failed to fulfill its responsibilities to properly maintain natural gas lines from 2012 to 2017 even after a natural gas explosion killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010 may be the last straw for state regulators.

On Dec. 21, the CPUC released a dramatic statement saying it would consider drastic steps to address the “serious safety problems” it says the utility has long condoned. The commission said a break-up of the agency into smaller regional utilities or a state takeover would be among the possible changes it examined.

“This process will be like repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight. Crashing a plane to make it safer isn’t good for the passengers,” said CPUC President Michael Picker. “This is not a punitive exercise. The keystone question is would, compared to PG&E and PG&E Corp. as presently constituted, any of the proposals provide Northern Californians with safer natural gas and electric service at just and reasonable rates.”

CPUC looking at seven possible major changes

The CPUC statement said seven possible changes would be considered.

– Having “some or all of PG&E be reconstituted as a publicly owned utility or utilities.”

– Replacing some members of PG&E’s Board of Directors with members “with a stronger background and focus on safety.”

– The replacement of existing corporate management.

– Adoption of a new corporate management structure with regional leaders overseeing regional subsidiaries.

– Linking PG&E’s “return on equity” – the profits it shares with its investor-owners – to its safety performance.

– Breaking the utility’s natural gas operations and its electric transmission operations into separate companies.

– Ending the arrangement in which PG&E is controlled by a holding company so it becomes “exclusively a regulated utility.”

Picker’s statement was a remarkable turnaround from his comments on Nov. 15, when his upbeat remarks about the ability of PG&E to survive its fourth consecutive year of devastating wildfires in Northern California led the utility’s stock price tospike.

It reflected the anger among CPUC officials over a staff report released Dec. 14 that found the utility had systematicallyneglected natural gas infrastructure despite being fined $1.6 billion and convicted of six felonies in federal court over the 2010 disaster in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco.

Utility facing 500 lawsuits relating to fires it may have caused

Even if PG&E survives in something like its present form after the CPUC’s review, its future is still very cloudy.

Because of claims that PG&E was responsible for the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Butte County in November, U.S. District Judge William Alsup announced he was reviewing whether PG&E had violated terms of its federal probation in the San Bruno case.

PG&E also disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is facing roughly 500 lawsuits with more than 3,100 plaintiffs over claims the utility was responsible for many of the dozens of wildfires in Northern California since 2016.

It is also facing wildfire-related lawsuits from the state Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire, Calaveras County and other government agencies.

But while the CPUC is apparently ready for major changes at the utility, it’s not clear yet how state lawmakers feel.

On Nov. 19 – even as criticism of PG&E swelled as confirmed deaths grew in the Camp Fire – Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, was reported to be considering introducing legislation to help the utility deal with wildfire costs.

Holden helped pass a law earlier this year that allowed PG&E to spread out the costs from the liabilities it faced from 17 wildfires in 2017.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

PG&E May Need Bailout to Survive Latest Wildfire

Camp FireHow much of wildfire costs not covered by insurance should be paid by California’s giant investor-owner utilities has been a significant issue since at least 2007. That’s when wildfires ravaged northern and eastern San Diego County, killing two people and destroying more than 1,300 homes.

San Diego Gas & Electric argued that it should be allowed to pass on $379 million in related costs. But the California Public Utilities Commission and state courts – noting the evidence that poorly maintained equipment had been blamed for much of the damage in two state investigations – have rebuffed SDG&E. The utility’s most recent setback came just last week when the state 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego rejected a call to overturn previous rulings.

But during SDG&E’s long fight for a utility-favorable interpretation of liability laws, the debate has become far more high-profile. With six of California’s all-time 10 worst wildfires occurring since September 2015 in areas served by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, the question of what to do to keep the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities in business has emerged as one of the thorniest, most contentious issues in Sacramento.

Now, with Northern California reeling from its deadliest fire ever in Butte County, and with a large area of Ventura County and northwest Los Angeles County ravaged in the past two weeks, PG&E and Edison are confronted with a perverse twist on their successful efforts to get the Legislature to give them relief from huge wildfire costs.

Law protecting utilities doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1

Senate Bill 901 – the main measure passed in late summer to insulate utilities from the extreme costs of fires – doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. That means its provisions to limit utilities’ liabilities if it could be shown they properly maintained their equipment in fire-prone wilderness areas won’t help PG&E or Edison with this fall’s blazes.

Instead, the old standard that led to negative rulings against SDG&E will be used in assessing damages. Given that utilities’ equipment is blamed for helping start the latest round of wildfires, that could be apocalyptic for the finances of PG&E. As of Monday afternoon, the Camp Fire had killed 77, with nearly 1,000 people unaccounted for, and torched 151,000 acres and nearly 13,000 structures.

In the Woolsey fire northeast of Los Angeles, three people have died, while more than 96,000 acres and 1,400-plus structures have burned.

In coming days, the focus is likely to be on how many of the missing in the Camp Fire are dead. It could end up as one of the five deadliest natural disasters in the United States in this century – nearly as lethal as Hurricane Katrina.

But eventually the focus will return to whether PG&E can survive the latest conflagrations even as it deals with potential losses in the billions from previous fires – and how much more state lawmakers and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom should do to help the utility survive in its present condition.

Its company valuation plunged by more than one-third after the severity of the Camp fire became evident, only to jumpsomewhat late last week after the president of the state Public Utilities Commission offered supportive comments.

“It’s not good policy to have utilities unable to finance the services and infrastructure the state of California needs,” Michael Picker told Bloomberg News. “They have to have stability and economic support to get the dollars they need right now.”

PG&E has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy before, in April 2001, when the utility was squeezed by sky-high energy costs after the blackouts of winter 2000-2001. It emerged from bankruptcy three years later.

Lawmakers have little goodwill for ‘criminal’ PG&E

But a huge scandal since then has left Northern California lawmakers with less goodwill toward the 113-year-old utility, whatever Picker’s views and whatever their willingness to pass SB901.

In 2010, a PG&E transmission line exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, leaving eight dead and destroying 38 homes. In 2017, a federal judge found the utility guilty of five felonies for its failings to safely maintain the gas line, and a sixth felony for obstructing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the disaster.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, routinely refers to PG&E as a “criminal” institution. Last week, he renewed his call to break up the utility, saying it could no longer be trusted to act in the interest of public safety.

PG&E shares closed at $23.26 in Monday trading. That was down 58 percent from its 52-week high of $55.66.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Death toll in California wildfires climbs to 25

FireThe remains of 14 more victims were found in the ashes of a massive Northern California wildfire, bringing the total number of deaths from blazes raging across the state to at least 25, officials said Saturday.

Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said the 14 bodies were recovered in the Camp Fire, thought to be the most destructive wildfire in state history. Nine deaths had previously been reported in that fire.

Two bodies also were found in the burn zone of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California, officials said.

“I know that members of our community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting,” Honea said. “I will tell you that we are doing everything that we possibly can to identify those remains and make contact with the next of kin.”

“My heart goes out to those people. I will tell you that this weighs heavy on all of us,” he said. …

Click here to read the full article from NBC News

California’s wildfire reality needs this new plan

A wildfire rages in Buck Meadows, in the Yosemite National ParkWildfires in California, which for the first time in living memory know no season — the state is dry at all times of the year — are vastly different from the old notion of “forest” fires in mostly unpopulated places.

That’s why a fresh initiative out of Sacramento in Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision of his budget forecast is right to include $96 million in new annual spending, from various funding sources, to support up-to-date firefighting that acknowledges new climate and exurban-growth realities. That modest but important spending will come in addition to $160 million proposed in January to use money from the environmental cap-and-trade funds on timberland-management improvements and fire protection in state and national forests.

Forest fires of what can now be thought of as the old-fashioned, Smokey Bear variety, do indeed still occur, often in remote wilderness areas of California’s many mountain ranges, often sparked by old-fashioned causes such as lightning. And they still need to be fought, or at least monitored. In fact, because of increased dryness and ever-vaster fires throughout the nation’s West, almost the entire budget of the United States Forest Service in recent years has been devoted to fighting wildfires.

But think back to the most recent devastating fires of several months back in California — they were not exactly in the Sierra Nevada.

October’s wine country wildfires in the end became the most financially harmful in our state’s history, with insurance claims of almost $10 billion. The state Insurance Department says that means the several related fires centered in Sonoma and Napa counties went past those in the suburban Oakland Hills fire of 1991 to become the most expensive every in California. …

Click here to read the full editorial from the Orange County Register

Southern California braces for severe wildfire season

As reported by the Desert Sun:

The thousands of acres burning across Southern California this week foreshadow what’s expected to be a severe wildfire season, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said.

Chief Thomas L. Tidwell predicts certain parts of the country — including Southern California and Arizona, where four large, uncontained fires are burning this week  — will have active fire seasons, like Washington and California did last year.

Last year was one of the worst wildfire years since at least 1960, according to records kept by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. More than 10.1 million acres were charred in 68,151 incidents. That compares to 3.5 million acres in 2014 and 4.3 million in 2013.

Two wildfires scorched thousands of acres and forced the evacuations of more than 850 homes in the San Gabriel Mountains about 95 miles northwest of the Coachella Valley this week. Several hundred residents were …

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