Newsom Lashes Out at Utilities as Wildfires Grow and Blackouts Loom

Embers fly from a tree as the Kincade Fire burns near Geyserville, Calif., on Thursday. Portions of Northern California remain in the dark after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut power to prevent wildfires from sparking during dry and windy conditions. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) – California Governor Gavin Newsom excoriated the state’s largest utility provider Friday after touring the charred remnants in the path of an uncontrolled wildfire that many suspect was started by equipment negligence.

Newsom said greed, decades of mismanagement and a continual prioritization of executive bonuses and shareholder dividends over the safety of Pacific Gas & Electric’s grid has led to a crisis in the state, where wildfires burn and residents make do without power for several days at a time.

“It took us decades to get here,” Newsom said during a press conference. “Make no mistake, we will get out of this mess and when we do we will hold PG&E accountable to a degree they have not been held to before.”

Newsom said the state was not currently considering making a bid for the utility that is currently mired in bankruptcy – but did not rule out such a proceeding in the future.

“It’s not currently on the agenda,” he said. “That being said, I said not currently.”

PG&E filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission late Thursday afternoon stating it believes a transmission equipment failure may have caused the fire.

Vines surround a burning building as the Kincade Fire burns through the Jimtown community of unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., on Thursday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Newsom spoke in the north Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, just miles from the Kincade Fire which sparked Wednesday night and has scorched approximately 21,000 acres. The blaze stands at just 5% containment.

“We have bulldozers and hand crews working diligently to put up line,” said Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter. “But with the wind coming back tomorrow, we have to build line that we can hold.”

Weather forecasters are calling for a windstorm of historic proportions to hit most parts of California beginning Saturday evening and lasting into Monday.

The winds combined with dry weather and low humidity make conditions ripe for a massively spreading fire along the lines of the Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Camp Fire in 2018, two of the deadliest and most destructive fires in Golden State history.

To try and prevent fires, the three major California utilities – PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison – have undertaken pre-emptive power shutoffs affecting millions of customers throughout the state.

People throughout California have been forced to manage for days at a time without power, going without refrigeration, water pumps, communication devices necessary for safety and medical devices that rely on electricity.

“I don’t know the politics behind it, but I know they don’t think of the little guy,” said Kathleen Ingram, a La Honda resident who was one of 179,000 PG&E customers affected by a blackout Thursday. “I only have $40 in my pocket right now and I have to spend most of that on gas for the generator.”

Newsom said PG&E and the other two utilities must do more to build a resilient infrastructure that can respond to the new reality of a climate-change ravaged landscape grappling with an increased frequency and intensity of fire.

“The acuity of the climate crisis affects California more than any other state,” Newsom said. “But that should not lead us to forgive them for failing to make the necessary investment in their equipment.”

Over the past decade, California has seen half of the state’s 10 largest wildfires and seven of its most destructive blazes. And a study published in July 2019 puts the blame largely on human-caused climate change.

Since 1972, the acreage burned by wildfires in California every year has increased fivefold – while the size of the average blaze has grown by an astounding 800%. The reason? Average summer temperatures across Northern California have risen by about 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to the study.

On Friday afternoon, the utility announced another round of dry windy weather forecast to blow into Northern California beginning Saturday night could mean more pre-emptive blackouts to about 850,000 customers in 36 of California’s 58 counties.

If it occurs, it would be PG&E’s largest planned shutoff so far.

Newsom said this will “not be the new normal” but also acknowledged it will take time for the state to marshal resources necessary to put an end to the frequency of pre-emptive blackouts in the state.

Firefighters in the Southern California city of Santa Clarita meanwhile have been battling the Tick Fire, which broke out late Thursday and destroyed several homes. By early Friday it had consumed 4,300 acres and was just 5% contained.

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