A key move to address California’s wildfire crisis

A resident watches smoke billowing from the Woolsey Fire, November, 2018, in Southern California. (Photo: BrittanyNY, via Shutterstock)

California is facing a wildfire crisis of epic proportions, and with the 2019 fire season already upon us, the immediate threat of yet another highly destructive and costly wildfire looms over communities all across the state. Everyone agrees that something must be done to address this crisis, and yet legislators still have not taken definitive action.

There is no question that state laws and regulations dealing with fire prevention, accountability and cost recovery are outdated and don’t reflect our new wildfire normal – brought about by years of drought, hundreds of millions of dead trees, hotter, drier days and nights, as well as more frequent high-wind events – have created tinder box conditions throughout California.

Even the best prevention efforts cannot eliminate 100% of the wildfire risk.

When public and private utilities are downgraded, it makes it harder for them to borrow money to continue their necessary infrastructure upgrades.

That’s why credit agencies are threatening to downgrade electric utilities – even if there are no wildfires leading up to Friday’s (July 12) legislative recess.

The concern is based on the uncertain level of future risk and the fact that California lacks a solid framework to hold businesses accountable and allocate costs when catastrophic wildfires do occur.

Unfortunately, when legislators hear “rating agencies,” they think this is a Wall Street issue that doesn’t impact their constituents. The exact opposite is true. The wildfire crisis and the rating agency downgrade warnings are very much a Main Street issue that does impact all Californians.

When public and private utilities are downgraded, as has happened already, it makes it harder for them to borrow money to continue their necessary infrastructure upgrades, including grid hardening wildfire prevention efforts. And when they can borrow money, it is ridiculously expensive – ultimately creating upward pressure on electricity bills for consumers for no additional benefit. Under either scenario, it’s utility customers and workers who have the most to lose.

Currently, a solution sits in front of legislators. AB 1054 is the product of months of research, expert input, and public hearings overseen by both Gov. Gavin Newson’s Wildfire Strikeforce as well as the Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery.

AB 1054 will:

  • Hold the state’s investor-owned electric utilities accountable for completing their wildfire mitigation plans to harden utility infrastructure, clear vegetation and invest in state-of the art weather monitoring.
  • Require electric utilities and their shareholders to pay if a utility’s misconduct contributes to a fire.
  • Protect victims and communities struck by wildfires by ensuring adequate resources to rebuild when fires do occur.

Failure to act before the crisis worsens will create further chaos, compromise future wildfire prevention and recovery efforts, and undoubtedly cost all Californians more.

Ultimately, we need a comprehensive approach to this new normal that includes enhanced prevention efforts and more resources for first responders. But our ability to position this state to better prevent, prepare for and respond to wildfires requires that we first establish clear, predictable rules to apportion costs when wildfires do occur, along with a well-financed, durable wildfire fund to help victims recover.

IBEW 47 members throughout the Southern California are currently working around the clock to harden our electrical infrastructure to not only make the system more fire resistant, but also to ensure that it can continue to safely deliver increasing amounts of clean power throughout the state. Our union is joining diverse constituencies from throughout California to urge passage of AB 1054 (Holden, Burke, Mayes) before summer recess to address this crisis.

We are doing our job. Now we ask state legislators to do theirs.

Editor’s Note: Patrick Lavin is the business manager and financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, (IBEW) Local 47, which represents more than 11,000 utility workers in Southern California.

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