Commentary: Where, when will fire disaster buck-passing stop?


One unspoken concept was conspicuously missing the other day, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a wildfire mitigation plan he had loudly touted: responsibility. Instead, there were multiple forms of passing the buck.

The Newsom-spurred plan has at least three prongs. Even though he didn’t quite endorse them, the governor wants the proposals acted on long before the next potentially massive wildfire season arrives in summer and early fall.

One plan element would see some mitigation of liability for utility companies when their electric lines start fires, especially if the companies are not found at fault. Another envisions a new state wildfire fund created with state money and funds from utility customers statewide, with needy fire victims somehow able to benefit. A third would let insurance companies refuse to sell policies in fire areas or charge more there.

It’s fair to sum up these three plan portions as two bailouts and a license to gouge.

Incentives are also recommended for utilities switching to renewable energy sources faster than now required, hopefully reducing the climate change that helped the swift spread of disastrously huge fires in 2017 and 2018.

One group that could benefit from all this: The victims, even though most knew or should have known just what they were getting into. The biggest blazes of the last two years occurred in or near areas that have burned before. People living there had every reason to know the dangers they faced.

Wrote one local columnist in a fire area: “I told (my wife), ‘This neighborhood is going to burn to the ground someday.’ We bought the house anyway.”

But the proposed plan would have taxpayers and utility customers who deliberately refuse to live in fire-prone areas share the cost when homes there burn. Already, prices for everyone’s property insurance tend to climb when insurers make multi-billion-dollar payoffs on existing policies.

That’s just one feature of the Newsom task force plan for a wildfire disaster fund. But why should taxpayers in historically safe areas pay into this?

Newsom’s response is that “We’re all in this together…” But he doesn’t explain why that should be true for folks who deliberately avoid fire areas. They don’t live in lovely forests, with scenic streams and gullies and thick woods, sweeping mountain views or ocean vistas.

Reporters who visit just-burned fire areas often hear residents say something like this in virtually every fire-prone part of California: “We love the lifestyle and the ambiance here and we won’t be driven out by any disaster.” Most taxpayers and utility customers get neither those vistas nor their ambiance. Why should they subsidize a lifestyle they don’t have and usually can’t afford? If people voluntarily help homeowning fire victims, that’s admirable, but why use tax dollars?

Deploying tax money after earthquakes and hurricanes is very different, since they can hit almost anywhere and can’t with any certainty be avoided like fire areas.

Then there’s the Newsom task force approach to the big privately owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric: A suggested lessening of their liabilities in big fires. All have lately been found at fault or admitted fault in fires.

Legislators last year refused to let them completely off the hook, and likely also won’t this year. Instead, lawmakers should clear the way for relatively new publicly-owned Community Choice Aggregation electric providers to buy up transmission lines and other equipment, so long as they maintain it safely. Existing utilities could use money from this to pay for damage they caused.

Newsom said “No single stakeholder created this crisis, and no single stakeholder should bear its full cost.” He called for costs to be shared by, among others, local governments (read: taxpayers) and utility ratepayers in general. But while no single group created the crisis, plenty of taxpayers and utility customers deliberately avoid fire danger. Newsom didn’t adequately or credibly explain why they should pay.

In a way, this scene stems from today’s societal reluctance to hold individuals and companies responsible for their actions and behavior.

But passing the buck eventually stops somewhere, sometime, and California might now be at one of those seminal moments.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.

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