California needs an action plan to confront wildfires and provide reliable electricity

By Toni Atkins, Special to CalMatters

As Californians endure the threats from wildfires and power shutoffs, various approaches to address different parts of the crisis have been advanced by legislators, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and other government agencies. 

With all the discussions and proposals circulating, and more likely on the way, there must be a comprehensive approach—call it an action plan—that encompasses all the moving parts involved in preventing fires and providing reliable energy.

Issues surrounding wildfires and power shutoffs cut across numerous policy areas, with broad impacts across the entire state, from energy, to health care, to human services, to transportation and education.

I believe our constituents expect us to treat these issues urgently, but also efficiently and effectively.

To be effective, an action plan should be based on the following realities:

  • Energy must remain available with minimal, targeted disruption during emergencies.
  • Backsliding on climate change makes wildfire conditions worse and costs ratepayers more.
  • Taxpayers should not be on the hook for bailing out stockholders who have profited from utility investments.
  • Utilities plans for hardening their infrastructure to reduce fires must include a realistic timeline, a work schedule the public can see and depend upon, and real accountability if goals are not met.

There are also many questions that the work of developing a comprehensive action plan can help answer:

Are there ways to jumpstart the hardening process so more people are spared shutoffs faster, without taxpayers or utility customers being left on the hook?

  • How can we improve communication for evacuations and other emergency notifications, and find solutions to cell towers failing at a time when the public is relying on them most?
  • How can we best deploy state assets, such as county fairgrounds, for use in emergencies with resources like Wi-Fi and charging stations that can be on site?
  • In a state already short of housing, how do we address insurance and building issues now that wildfire zones have expanded to include both rural and urban communities?
  • How do we ensure that businesses responsible for children, the elderly and people with disabilities adequately protect their clients when there are fires, power shutoffs or other emergencies?

Today, Nov. 18, the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee will hold a hearing to examine the impacts of the power shutoffs. 

A follow-up hearing on utility infrastructure and other wildfire related issues is being planned as well. 

I expect these hearings will help inform the Senate’s next steps in this ongoing crisis, actions that will be taken within our three areas of focus: legislation, oversight, and funding through the state budget. I also believe that the information that comes out of these hearings should be part of developing an overall action plan.

The Newsom Administration is convening stakeholders to address how PG&E goes forward, and the California Public Utilities Commission is investigating the power shutoffs. Those outcomes, too, should be considered as part of a comprehensive action plan.

Of course, much work has already been done over the past two years, with the Legislature and Govs. Jerry Brown and Newsom establishing new wildfire safety plans, overhauling the state’s prevention and response efforts, supporting local recovery efforts, and committing nearly $1 billion for important investments in new equipment and staffing for CalFire. 

The Senate has been working to prepare a $4.1 billion bond in November 2020 that will help communities invest in climate resiliency—including preventing wildfires and preparing for droughts. 

All of these elements can and should be incorporated into a comprehensive action plan, along with the best and most workable of the new policy proposals that come forward.

I served on the San Diego City Council after our fires in 2003 and 2007, when wildfires in California had not yet become so prevalent. 

Our experience in establishing recovery and prevention protocols was pretty much a learn-as-we-go experience. That experience reinforces my approach to what California needs now: A comprehensive action plan where all the documented facts, new proposals, and existing policies are assessed by the Legislature and governor, and implemented in a timely and transparent manner so Californians know what to expect, and when, and what happens if those expectations are not met.

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Toni Atkins is President Pro Tem of the California State Senate, and a Democrat from San Diego, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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