Cal­i­for­nia fire vic­tims don’t want util­i­ties’ fault re­duced

Manteca Bulletin - - State -

SANTA ROSA (AP) — Vic­tims of Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est wild­fires joined politi­cians on Wed­nes­day to urge state law­mak­ers to stop try­ing to over­haul laws that hold util­ity com­pa­nies ac­count­able for blazes.

Gath­er­ing in Santa Rosa in front of an empty lot where Brad Sher­wood’s home once stood, the group said it’s con­cerned about a newly formed leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee that will con­sider cut­ting util­i­ties’ re­spon­si­bil­ity when their equip­ment causes fires.

With just six weeks left in the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, they are wor­ried law­mak­ers may move quickly to help util­i­ties.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have de­ter­mined that Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. equip­ment started sev­eral of the 2017 wild­fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try that killed 44 peo­ple. The com­pany says it ex­pects to pay more than $2.5 bil­lion.

Util­i­ties are now on the hook to pay dam­ages in Cal­i­for­nia if their equip­ment started the fire, even if they aren’t neg­li­gent. PG&E and other util­i­ties say the law is un­fair and they want it wiped from the state’s books.

Geisha Wil­liams, PG&E’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, called the law “bad pub­lic pol­icy” and said the way Cal­i­for­nia de­cides on who should pay fire vic­tims needs a sig­nif­i­cant over­haul.

She said se­vere fires are the “new nor­mal” amid cli­mate change and as Cal­i­for­nia deals with chronic drought.

Wil­liams said the San Fran­cisco-based util­ity is fight­ing for the change in the Leg­is­la­ture and in the courts, warn­ing that PG&E could face bank­ruptcy if dam­ages climb too high.

A com­mit­tee of state law­mak­ers is con­sid­er­ing the is­sue and other ways to help util­i­ties pay for fire dam­age, in­clud­ing a pro­posal to let util­i­ties use tax­payer-sup­ported bonds to pay le­gal dam­ages.

PG&E is lead­ing the lob­by­ing ef­fort in Sacra­mento.

Sonoma County Su­per­vi­sor James Gore said the is­sues are too com­pli­cated to re­solve in the six weeks re­main­ing for the Leg­is­la­ture to pass the bill.

North­ern Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents who lost homes in the 2017 fires said the leg­isla­tive wran­gling is frus­trat­ing amid their daily fights with in­surance com­pa­nies, con­trac­tors and lawyers.

“This is bad tim­ing on PG&E’s part,” Sher­wood said. “I should be wor­ry­ing about car­pets and counter tops in my new house in­stead of what’s go­ing on in Sacra­mento.”

The news con­fer­ence in front of Sher­wood’s Santa Rosa lot was or­ga­nized by the Cal­i­for­nia State As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties, which op­poses the util­i­ties’ push to re­duce their li­a­bil­ity.


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