Firing up a new plan

California Democrats plan to address the long-term wildfire and economic threats of a changing environment

The leader of the California Senate made it clear this month that the state’s models for wildfire protection, energy dependability and climate adaptation are in need of immediate upgrades. Her words came on the heels of Democrats launching a series of hearings aimed at avoiding the kind of wildfire disasters and extended blackouts that have plagued the Golden State in recent years.

What Sen. Toni G. Atkins is hoping to ultimately pull from the hearings is a comprehensive legislative package that addresses interconnected problems on multiple fronts. A top priority is to fast-track the “hardening” of electric grids, while making new investments in vegetation management. In a statement, the San Diego Democrat said part of that equation is implementing better public safety power shutoff strategies “to avoid another catastrophic year.”

Those shutoffs were mainly carried out by Pacific Gas and Electric Company and aimed to preempt wildfires from being sparked by its equipment. An analysis by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment estimated that the PG&E shutoffs cost the California economy $2.5 billion. But the disruptive blackouts didn’t prevent last fall’s Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which burned 77,758 acres and threatened 90,000 structures following a transmission line failure.

The upcoming hearings will also address homeowner insurance non-renewals due to fire risk and how to stabilize the state’s overall emergency insurance market, as well training and deploying what Atkins described as “a resiliency workforce.”

“The gross mismanagement of this past year’s PSPS events has made Californians rightfully doubt the reliability of their power and telecommunications services, which are a lifeline for so many, especially during emergency events,” Sen. Ben Hueso of San Diego told reporters during Atkins’s Feb. 12 announcement.