“No Changes to Utility Liability Law,” Supervisors Testify Before Legislative Wildfire Committee
County Supervisors Diane Dillon, Napa County, and Carre Brown, Mendocino County, testified Wednesday in front of the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Legislative Conference Committee in a packed hearing room at the State Capitol. They, along with numerous other individuals, urged legislators not to make any changes to utility liability law in order to protect future fire survivors and local communities.
CSAC has been leading on efforts in the Capitol to prevent any changes to wildfire liability law in the last weeks of the legislative session; a press conference conducted by CSAC was recently held in Sonoma County and a joint local government association advocacy letter was submitted to the Conference Committee expressing significant concerns over any changes to the constitutionally protected inverse condemnation process.
At Wednesday’s hearing – the first for the joint Conference Committee — Supervisors Dillon and Brown addressed members of the committee and urged them to consider the impact of any hastily made changes to liability law during the last weeks of session and instead suggested the focus be put on fuel reduction, forest management and improvements in utility fire safety policy and technology. You can watch their testimony here.
A key presentation during the hearing was given by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) Director of Fire Science & Climate Adaptation Brian D’Agostino, who described SDGE’s state-of-the-art weather monitoring system and fire prevention and suppression technology systems. SDGE has invested significantly in technology to help prevent major fires after their powerlines started the 2007 Witch Fire that devastated their service areas, taking lives and scorching 200,000 acres. SDGE settled survivor lawsuits from the fire under constitutionally granted inverse condemnation actions.
Since 2010, SDGE has invested more than $1 billion to harden infrastructure, install technology that collects hundreds of thousands of wind and weather data points daily, contract a huge fire-fighting helicopter, and create sophisticated fire-modeling tools in a company-wide effort to mitigate the risk of damage by wildfires. D’Agostino said the program has been very effective in protecting communities in San Diego County. When D’Agostino was asked by Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes if he would recommend looking at similar efforts statewide, he replied, “Yes.”
CSAC has been meeting with staff of Conference Committee members for the past several weeks during the summer recess, discussing the complexities of the wildfire liability issues and the impacts changes would have to future communities and counties. On the day before the hearing, Governor Brown released his proposal about how to change utility liability laws moving forward that would balance public benefit with private property damage. CSAC is still reviewing the proposal, but remains very concerned over potential impacts of any changes.
CSAC Deputy Executive Director of Legislative Affairs Darby Kernan expressed her appreciation for the county supervisors who attended Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s crucial for the voices of local government to be heard on this critical issue. They have been on the front lines of wildfire disasters and the subsequent recovery. They have experienced the devastation it causes to residents, their communities and local economy. Our communities need the constitutional protections that inverse condemnation provides.”
“As was pointed out numerous times during the hearing, hasty decisions could lead to significant long-term impacts for the residents of California,” Kernan said. “We need to look at the totality of wildfire preparedness and response — and not be driven by legislative deadlines.”