Putting victims first in wildfire legislation

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When asked by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon if I would be willing to join the legislative Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee, of course I said yes. After all, the district that I proudly represent suffered the most – the most lives lost, the most structures destroyed, and the most livelihoods affected.  

The first of what I anticipate could be a series of meetings will be July 25, and the conference committee will almost certainly be focused on the issue of wildfire liability in those meetings. I want to be very clear that my role will be to ensure that the needs of fire survivors, taxpayers and utility ratepayers will take precedence, not the utility companies.

Insurance claims from last fall’s fires have reached $12.5 billion, about $10 billion in Northern California alone. In May of this year, CAL FIRE released the results of a six-month investigation that four of the 2017 Northern California fires “were caused by trees coming into contact with power lines.” Two weeks later, another report said that an additional 12 fires “were caused by electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles.”

More than 150 lawsuits have been filed against PG&E in attempt to make homeowners and others whole again – as whole as someone can be after losing their homes, their photographs and family mementos. Those lawsuits must be allowed to proceed and I will not support any solution that would prevent anyone from having their day in court.

PG&E has stated that it has a little more than $800 million in insurance to cover those costs, much less than needed. And although the focus has been on PG&E, there are other smaller public utility companies, with far fewer resources, that could be affected as well.

Many folks have found themselves underinsured and not because of anything they did or didn’t do. Rebuilding costs following a disaster of this magnitude are driven by the competition for labor and the cost of materials, especially given the impact of recent tariffs. It will also take a much longer time period to rebuild, requiring many people to rent temporary housing while still being required to make their mortgage payments.

We are in a “new normal” when it comes to the environment and increased fire danger. And we’ve almost been in it long enough to stop using the term “new.” Although the liability issue has stolen the headlines, I will also encourage the committee to look at wildfire preparedness and response to make sure that we are thinking of all the ways we can mitigate the risk of fire, including smart forest management practices, wildland management and the implementation of early detection technology similar to what is being used in the San Diego area.

These hearings will be noticed, open to the public and available on either the Legislature’s website or www.calchannel.com.

My commitment, as I participate on this conference committee, is to not allow the victims of these wildfires to be “burned again.”