California’s Public Utilities Might’ve Started Wildfires–Again

No one knows yet what ignited the Camp and Woolsey fires in California, which are still burning and have killed at least 71 people and left thousands missing and displaced. But yesterday the Guardian reported that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates the private businesses that provide essential services to residents across the state, has said that it “received incident reports from [utility companies Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE)] showing that equipment issues occurred in the areas close to where the fires ignited, in the moments before flames began to spread.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that California’s utility infrastructure caused horrifying disasters:

Incidents in recent years include the 2015 Butte fire, which killed two people and destroyed almost 900 structures after a PG&E power line ignited brush below it, and the North Bay fires, which killed 43 people and destroyed more than 14,700 homes. PG&E was also responsible in 2010 for a gas line explosion in San Bruno that ripped through an entire neighborhood, killing eight and injuring 58 people. PG&E was fined $1.6bn for the explosion and a federal jury found the company guilty of six felony charges, ordering it to pay $3m in fines.

In 2008, PG&E was found at fault for a natural gas leak that caused an explosion that killed one person in Rancho Cordova and resulted in a $38m fine. That same year, a PG&E transmission line was at the heart of the Whiskey fire in Mendocino national forest that resulted in a $5.5m federal lawsuit settlement.

The New York Times reported that “state officials have determined that electrical equipment owned by PG&E, including power lines and poles, was responsible for at least 17 of 21 major fires in Northern California last fall. In eight of those cases, they referred the findings to prosecutors over possible violations of state law.”

Californians are well aware of utility company malfeasance–including criminal wrongdoing–and lackadaisical oversight from the Public Utilities Commission. It just so happens that the PUC is in the middle of a three-year investigation of PG&E’s “safety culture,” according to the Times. (Sounds like they could’ve wrapped that up at least a year ago, no?) Funny enough, the PUC itself has been under a criminal probe “since 2014, when emails surfaced that revealed utility executives and regulators were privately negotiating deals on matters that were supposed to be decided in public.” That’s not even the half of it: state officials have called for further charges against the PUC for allegedly obstructing the 2014 investigation by hiring lawyers “using money from California utility customers … and refusing to turn over documents and filing motions to quash search warrants in the attorney general’s three-year investigation.”

Lawmakers have made attempts at reform over the past couple years. In 2016, then-assemblyman Mike Gatto, who represented the 43rd district not far from the Woolsey fire’s embers, made an understandable conclusion: the state would be better off torching the PUC from the state constitution and redistributing its responsibilities among existing government bodies. His proposal didn’t make it into law.

Thousands of Californians are, once again, left to rebuild parts of their state from the ground up. If it turns out that utility companies and regulators are to blame, it might make sense for Sacramento policymakers to consider doing the same to them.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.