Shared from the 6/12/2018 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

EDITORIAL On the Wine Country Wildfires

PG&E shouldn’t get a bailout

The latest damning revelations about Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s role in a dozen Wine Country wildfires should extinguish any attempt to preemptively pardon the company. With every completed fire investigation pointing to PG&E equipment, and criminal probes proceeding in two-thirds of them, the lobbying to limit the company’s liability looks even more inappropriate than it did before.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported Friday that PG&E power lines and other equipment caused 12 of the blazes that devastated the region eight months ago, including the Redwood Fire, which killed nine in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, and the Atlas Fire, which led to six deaths as it burned through Napa and Solano counties. In eight of the 12, Cal Fire referred the findings to district attorneys for further investigation “due to evidence of alleged violations of state law.” The utility is required to take precautions such as trimming trees and other vegetation to prevent such fires.

Including conclusions about four other blazes announced two weeks earlier, Cal Fire has finished investigating a total of 16, attributed all of them to PG&E equipment and referred 11 for criminal investigation. Most started when trees or limbs fell into power lines amid high winds, though investigators blamed toppled and disconnected PG&E equipment in two cases and, in a third, a downed line that was re-electrified. Cal Fire has yet to announce what caused the Tubbs Fire, which became the deadliest of the October blazes when it leveled a Santa Rosa neighborhood, but electrical equipment is suspected in that case, too.

The criminal investigations come just two years after PG&E was convicted of violating safety regulations and misleading investigators in the 2010 gas explosion that killed eight in San Bruno. In February, Calaveras County supervisors voted to sue the utility over the 2015 Butte Fire, which caused two deaths after a tree came into contact with power lines, and the company has estimated that it could be liable for $750 million in damages related to that blaze.

The ravages of the Wine Country fires, meanwhile, are approaching $10 billion and are the subject of more than 150 lawsuits. Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that the company would labor to limit its exposure. Besides working to deflect blame to climate change, extreme weather and other external forces, PG&E and other utilities have lobbied policymakers to pass costs on to customers, protect them from lawsuits, establish a relief fund, and change a constitutional provision that makes them liable for damages caused by their equipment regardless of wrongdoing.

Despite Cal Fire’s conclusions, PG&E maintained that its “overall programs met our state’s high standards.”

Given the gathering evidence to the contrary, lawmakers should look to protect the public from PG&E instead of rushing to rescue the company from itself.

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