California wildfire prevention: Unplugging Grandma's ventilator

PG&E will respond to California's reckless environmental policies that cause huge wildfires by unplugging electricity on windy days, despite risks to shut-ins and the elderly.

The California public utility, forced into its second bankruptcy in 16 years after facing $30 billion in liability claims from 2017 and 2018 wildfires, announced a 'Public Safety Power Shutoff' policy that will shut down its electrical grid for up to 5.4 million users during 'Red Flag' periods with low humidity and sustained winds above 25 mph.

The bankrupt company stated that the shutoff could last up to five days and suggested that special needs, such as the elderly and shut-ins that "require electricity to sustain life, may wish to Create An Emergency Preparedness Plan" that could include having public service phone numbers, having a backup location, and informing local authorities.

County officials were stunned by the new PG&E policy, expressing fear that patients on medical equipment could be at risk of dying.  There are also concerns that PG&E electrical shutoffs during the Carr Fire that swept through Redding and the Camp Fire that burned Paradise to the ground, many seniors could not open garage doors to escape.

PG&E argues it has been forced to adopt electrical shutoffs under a bizarre 1999 California Court of Appeals opinion that made utility assets subject to "inverse condemnation" through legal claimant "taking," without regard for any determination of negligence by the utility or its staff, for wind-driven power line–sparking wildfires along PG&E's 18,466 circuit miles of interconnected electric transmission lines.

California has suffered more and larger wildfires since the Clinton administration in 1994 adopted the Northwest Forest Plan that prioritized protecting endangered species, water quality, and old-growth forests in 4.5 million acres of Northern California national forests.  Logging roads that acted as fire breaks were abandoned as the industry shriveled, resulting in heavier underbrush and forest tree spacing becoming much denser.  As a result, wildfires became bigger, hotter, and more remote from firefighters.

The Bush administration tried to reverse the policies, but environmentalists used lawsuits until the Obama administration reinstated the anti-logging policies and supported Gov. Brown's California 'Forest Practice Rules 2015' that led to even less logging and more road abandonments.

After insurance companies suffered a shockingly high $5.1 billion in wildfires losses over a 10-year period through 2016, underwriting consultant Verisk Solutions warned at the start of the 2017 fire season: "4.5 million U.S. homes were identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire, with more than 2 million in California alone."

The National Interagency Coordination Center found that Northern California in the last decade had suffered a 385-percent annual increase in acres burned versus prior years.  Of the 129,582 U.S. wildfires that burned 18,793,578 acres between 2017 and 2018, California accounted 15 percent of fires and almost 20 percent of the area burned.

Facing a high-wind event in October 2018, PG&E shut off power lines in high-risk areas.  After no fire occurred, customers protested, and the utility was hit with 146 claims for losses, including 25 claims of business economic impacts.  A similar wind event the next month sparked the Camp Fire that killed 86 people and destroyed 18,661 structures.

PG&E has not disclosed health issue claims for shutting off power to the 3.8 million, or about 20 percent, of its service area that are over age 60, because Senate Bill 901, passed by the California Legislature and signed by former governor Brown in 2018, relieved all utilities from liability during a so-called wildfire "de-energizing" event.

With the utilities financially off the hook for wildfire de-energizing claims, the financial liability and burden to care for seniors now falls directly on state and local government.

Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a 'Wildfire State of Emergency' on March 22 that suspended all environmental mitigation mandates to expedite $50 million for forest clean-up projects before the fire season.  Radical environmental and progressive activists who were key to his election were furious when Newsom stated, "The increasing wildfire risks we face as a state mean we simply can't wait until a fire starts in order to start deploying emergency resources."