Last year’s California wildfires killed dozens of people and
left more than 2,100 square miles of costly destruction in their wake. Now, with
the 2018 wildfire season already underway, IBEW members in the Golden State are
working with utility companies and lawmakers to craft fair legislative
solutions to help lessen wildfire frequency and severity and to ensure that future
wildfire victims will continue to have access to their due compensation — all without
bankrupting utilities in the process.
|Power lines brought down by the recent River Fire near Lakeport, Calif., were quickly replaced by IBEW members working for Pacific Gas & Electric.
Photo courtesy Local 1245
At stake are tens of thousands of IBEW jobs that could be negatively impacted or even lost if any of California’s investor-owned utilities were to go under.
“A big concern is a California doctrine known as ‘inverse condemnation,’” said Tom Dalzell, business manager for Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245. “Under this principle, if a company’s equipment is determined to have been involved in a wildfire in any way — even if the utility followed every law, operated in good faith, and was found not to be negligent — it’s expected pay out the full damages incurred by that fire.”
Local 1245 represents almost 19,000 electrical workers in most of northern California and northern Nevada. Including Pacific Gas and Electric’s many contractors, more than 10,000 Golden State members work for the investor-owned utility, which estimates that, under inverse condemnation, it could wind up being liable for at least $9 billion for last year’s fires. That’s not to mention billions more for fires forecasted to flare up in 2018.
“No utility can operate in a state where a single branch on a single tree can create tens of billions of dollars of liability for the utility,” Dalzell said.
Last year’s two biggest wind-driven blazes caused the deaths of at least 45 people; destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, and equipment; and forced tens of thousands of Californians to evacuate. The October 2017 Tubbs Fire burned through wide swaths of Northern California’s Sonoma and Napa counties; two months later, the Thomas Fire roared through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the southern part of the state. (A California wildfire generally takes its name from some landmark near its point of origin.)
According to California’s Department of Insurance, nearly 45,000 claims totaling almost $12 billion have been filed by the victims of the these major wildfires. The department largely blamed the blazes on Pacific Gas and Electric, ruling that the fires were sparked after tree branches were blown into direct contact with the utility’s power lines.
“Forcing PG&E to bear the entire liability burden could bankrupt it,” Dalzell said, “and when a company in California goes bankrupt, its workers typically bear the brunt of the pain.” Federal bankruptcy law allows companies in serious debt to crack open and gut collective-bargaining agreements, he explained, as long as the company can make the case that doing so is necessary to secure its survival.
“In PG&E’s case, a bankruptcy judge could empower the company to sweep away gains that took us years or even decades to negotiate,” he said, “and we would end up with far less negotiating power, to say the least.”
Local 1245 is a member of the California Coalition of Utility Employees, which has been urgently working in recent months with California Gov. Jerry Brown and leaders of the state’s Assembly and Senate to quickly come up with a way to address utilities’ accountability for natural disasters and the state’s regulations concerning such disasters — including inverse condemnation. Los Angeles Local 18; Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47; and San Diego Local 465 also are members of the coalition.
Lawmakers are hoping to craft legislation that would include provisions for infrastructure maintenance, for the fair allocation of wildfire prevention and response costs, and for the appropriate determination of disaster responsibility. They stressed that any new law would cover future wildfire damages only and would have no effect on any liability for past wildfires.
CCUE’s efforts also are backed by a separate IBEW-supported group known as Building Resilient Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s Economy (BRITE), which counts as members Locals 47, 465, and 1245, along with Los Angeles Local 11 and Fresno, Calif., Local 100.
Adding extra urgency to the task of getting a law passed quickly has been the unusually early start to the 2018 wildfire season. Brown has declared states of emergency at least 11 of California’s 58 counties since June. More than 14,000 firefighters — from all over California and from other jurisdictions — have been called in to help put out the nearly 20 separate fires now blazing across the Golden State, including what is now the largest fire in the state’s recorded history: the Mendocino Complex fire, actually two separate but adjacent fires that so far have burned nearly 300,000 acres about 100 miles north of San Francisco.
Utility workers, including hundreds of members from several locals, have been called into action, often dispatched into fire zones while the ground is still smoldering to restore critical power and gas connections severed by the flames. Those workers, whose lives and livelihoods are jeopardized by the fires and the utilities’ fiscal health, respectively, are counting on lawmakers to act.
“Labor stability in a time of crisis like this is our highest priority, and it’s the best course of action for our members,” Dalzell said. “In this era where extreme weather is the new normal, it’s critical that we reassess the way we assign blame after events like these. Hurting the tens of thousands of working Californians who keep the lights on is the exact opposite of how we should be handling things.”
To find out what you can do and to keep up with the latest developments, you can sign up for e-mail updates from IBEW’s partners at BRITE. Visit briteca.com to get started.