The politics of California’s killer wildfires

Californians – most of us, anyway – loath President Donald Trump and the state’s voters punished him this month by possibly flipping nearly half of its Republican-held congressional districts.

Donald Trump feels the same way about California and with the votes still being counted, he lashed back by blaming two horrendous post-election wildfires on state mismanagement of forests.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” Trump tweeted. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

It was another example of Trump’s congenital foot-in-mouth affliction. As California officialdom quickly pointed out, the federal government controls virtually all of the state’s publicly owned forestlands, including Plumas National Forest, site of the deadly Camp Fire, and Trump had reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation.

The exchange between Trump and California was not an isolated example of how human tragedy quickly takes on a political dimension in these super-heated times.

Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown intends to remain in the public eye as a sort of roving Cassandra about the “existential threat” of climate change. Accordingly, he portrayed the fires as “the new abnormal” brought about by climate change, with an indirect shot at Trump.

“Managing all the forests in every way we can does not stop climate change,” he said at a weekend press conference. “Those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing. … The chickens are coming home to roost. This is real.”

Meanwhile, the two killer fires also portend what is certain to be a very contentious conflict for Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom.

There are indications that both fires may have originated in malfunctions in electric power lines, perhaps caused by high winds.

Pacific Gas and Electric filed a brief report with the Public Utilities Commission of a transmission line outage early Thursday at a remote site in Butte County, just minutes before the reported start of the devastating Camp Fire.

If, indeed, downed power lines sparked the fires, it will renew one of this year’s fiercest legislative battles over whether utility shareholders or ratepayers should be liable for damages.

When a wildfire devastated Santa Rosa in 2017, those who lost their homes demanded compensation from PG&E under the doctrine of “inverse condemnation.” The Public Utilities Commission had previously blocked utilities from tapping customers to pay for fire damages and the Santa Rosa fire pushed the issue into the legislative arena, with utilities warning that strict liability could drive them into bankruptcy.

The upshot was legislation, Senate Bill 901, which allows utilities, in some cases, to borrow money to pay for wildfire damages and tap their customers to repay the loans. It applies to 2017 fires, such as the one in Santa Rosa, and will apply to fires in 2019 and beyond, but does not apply to 2018’s super-destructive blazes.

PG&E and Southern California Edison could be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars in damages that could mean bankruptcy. When the Legislature reconvenes in December, they and their unions will likely seek more financial protection for 2018 fires, arguing again that the fires are acts of nature.

Brown was part of the deal on SB 901, and the 2018 exemption will fall on Newsom to resolve.

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