PG&E crews repair power lines damaged by the 2017 Tubbs Fire near Santa Rosa, Calif. Photo courtesy Local 1245.  

Firefighters across California are still battling dozens of wildfires as the state deals with one of its worst — and costliest — wildfire seasons ever.

Meanwhile, after a focused lobbying effort by all of California’s IBEW locals and business managers, Golden State lawmakers burned some midnight oil in Sacramento on the Friday before Labor Day as they worked out a last-minute wildfire liability measure that helps to mitigate the financial fallout from last year’s similarly catastrophic blazes.

Sent to Gov. Jerry Brown with about an hour to spare before the state’s 2017 legislative session officially ended at midnight on August 31, SB 901 “is not a perfect bill,” said Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell, “but it is significant, and we believe that it will provide financial stability to PG&E, to its ratepayers, and to the more than 10,000 IBEW members who work for it in some capacity.”

Over the last several years, wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of acres throughout California, killing dozens of people and destroying thousands of homes in the process. And because of a provision of California law known as “inverse condemnation,” Pacific Gas & Electric was found liable for billions of dollars in damages caused by several of 2017’s fires. Inverse condemnation makes utilities like PG&E liable for wildfire damages if the utility’s equipment is found to have been involved in the fire in any way, regardless of whether the utility was found not to be negligent.

SB 901 does not repeal inverse condemnation, but one of its provisions allows PG&E to seek ways to recoup financial losses stemming from the 2017 wildfires — including, as a last resort, a special charge to customers’ utility bills, a line item that could remain in place for up to 20 years.

“This is about protecting ratepayers, not helping utilities,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, one of the chief backers of SB 901. “The fact of the matter is ratepayers would be hurt in a utility bankruptcy.”

Without the chance to recover financially, Dalzell said, PG&E and utilities like it would face certain fiscal ruin. “And when a company in California goes bankrupt, its workers typically bear the brunt of the pain,” he said. Federal bankruptcy law allows companies in serious debt to crack open and gut collective-bargaining agreements, he noted, provided the company can make the case that it cannot survive without doing so.

“A bankruptcy judge could empower PG&E to sweep away the gains that took us years or even decades to negotiate,” Dalzell said.

SB 901 also provides for solid job, worker and pension protections should a utility ever be sold, change hands or go bankrupt, but Dalzell noted that the Legislature didn’t simply hand over those protections.

“We have been working for months on legislation to address the ongoing impacts of the wildfire crisis here in California,” he said.

An intensive union-led lobbying effort culminated on August 27, when more than 100 men and women representing the Coalition of California Utility Employees visited every legislator’s office in the state capitol. The coalition counts a number of trade union locals as members, including Dalzell’s Local 1245, along with Los Angeles Local 18, Diamond Bar Local 47, and San Diego Local 465.

Another of the bill’s provisions requires PG&E and other utilities to toughen their systems and infrastructure, something that should both protect communities and provide IBEW members with new work for years to come, Dalzell said. It also allocates $200 million a year for a variety of wildfire-prevention measures.

“The bill gives near-term relief,” he said, “but it leaves unanswered several questions that will have to be addressed in future legislative sessions.”

So far in 2018, wildfires have burned more than 1.2 million acres in California. The causes of most of this year’s fires have yet to be determined.

Gov. Brown has until Sept. 30 to decide whether he will sign SB 901 into law or veto it.