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California Editorial Rdp

Nov. 21

Los Angeles Times on preparing for California’s “new abnormal” wildfire risk:

It’s going to be a while before California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigators determine what sparked the Camp fire in Northern California foothills near Chico — maybe a long while. But there’s a good possibility the high-voltage power lines operated by Pacific Gas & Electric that malfunctioned shortly before the fire began are at fault.

Power lines may have also sparked the Woolsey fire in Southern California. Just two minutes before the blaze that has so far charred 100,000 acres and about 1,500 structures was reported near the shuttered Santa Susana Field Lab on Nov. 8, power lines nearby also went offline. Whether the outage caused the fire or vice versa is still unknown.

But considering the recent past, it may well turn out that the power lines were damaged by intense winds, causing them to spit sparks that ignited surrounding brush. After all, power lines were at fault in other recent wildfires — the Thomas fire in December that scorched 440 square miles (1,140 sq. kilometers) in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and more than a dozen fires that collectively ravaged California’s wine country last fall.

This can’t keep happening. Though power lines have sparked fires for as long as the lines have existed, in recent years they have become a major threat as climate change-driven conditions — what Gov. Jerry Brown calls the “new abnormal” for California — have converged with human development in high fire risk terrain. If this terrifying trend continues, it will jeopardize not just lives and landscapes, but the existence of the electrical utilities that most Californians rely on to power their homes.

State law requires utilities to pay for damage to private property when their equipment starts a wildfire, whether or not there was negligence involved. With wildfires causing billions of dollars of damage, the threat of liability has led all three of the state’s big investor-owned electrical utilities — PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to warn that fire costs could bankrupt them.

Earlier this year lawmakers passed SB 901, the product of months of work by a joint conference committee on wildfires. It contained some good elements, such as new fire prevention requirements for utilities, many of which are already being implemented. The primary focus of the bill, however, was on easing the financial burden for the investor-owned utilities.

The measure left utilities strictly liable for fire damages caused by their equipment, but allowed regulators to shift those costs to ratepayers when utilities were not negligent. That relief might keep the utilities that power our homes from going belly up if they did nothing wrong, but it won’t give utilities any greater incentive to prevent fires.

There’s much more to do when it comes to preventing wildfires, as this month’s firestorms illustrate. And that’s why lawmakers must start considering what comes next.

Do we need stricter rules for when power must be cut off to prevent sparking a fire, particularly for high-voltage transmission lines such as the one that malfunctioned just before the Camp fire ignited? What about requiring power lines to be moved underground instead of being strung from poles, where they can be snapped by high winds? Admittedly, buried lines are expensive and can be prone to flooding and earthquake damage. But the cost might be worth it in some high fire risk areas.

Should the state require a higher standard for electrical infrastructure if and when fire-ravaged communities rebuild? Or do we upend the current utility model altogether? One state senator is considering legislation to break up the state’s investor-owned utilities or make them public. That’s an extreme option, and it’s not clear how the change would lower fire risks. But with such an existential threat facing the state, everything should be up for discussion.

The future of PG&E, which powers much of Northern California, is a more immediate question. The company, already on the hook for 17 fires last year, said last week that it doesn’t have enough insurance to cover payouts if it is found to be liable for the Camp fire. The California Public Utilities Commission announced last week that it would be taking the unusual step of examining PG&E’s governance structure as part of a safety culture probe, and may even consider recommending a breakup of the massive utility. While the PUC looks for answers, the rest of the state’s leaders must grapple with the link between power lines and fires as well. This issue needs to be a top priority if Brown’s “new abnormal” is indeed the state’s future.


Nov. 20

The Press Democrat on limiting when police officers can hit mute:

Santa Rosa police officials should heed an independent auditor’s recommendation to restrict how often officers can silence the audio on their body cameras.

In a review of police department operations, Palo Alto attorney Bob Aaronson called into question a policy that allows officers to use the mute buttons on their body cams. He suggested that audio and video should be turned on during all service calls by police officers, from the moment they arrive at the scene to the moment they depart.

“We’re not just trying to narrowly analyze whether a use of force was sanctioned, but to examine in every aspect how a call for service was managed,” wrote Aaronson, who reviewed 688 body cam videos as part of his audit.

Current policy allows officers to turn off cameras when they’re discussing medical or tactical issues with supervisors, but that’s too broad and open to abuse. “I worry that the ‘revealing tactics’ reason for muting cameras is overused, to say the least,” Aaronson wrote. “In my experience, the vast majority of communication at the scene is not regarding secret tactics but simple supervision and incident management.”

We hope that Aaronson’s recommendation isn’t overshadowed by a sharp disagreement last week with City Council members over his observations about homelessness.

Video from body cameras is widely seen as a safeguard against police officers who stray from their pledge to serve and protect. But the cameras also benefit officers. Since they were introduced by the city, the number of complaints against officers has declined, and complaints are resolved more quickly.

For an example of what could go wrong when cameras are muted, Santa Rosa officials need look no further than Sacramento, where police officers quickly silenced the audio after an unarmed man was shot by police near his grandparents’ home in April.

That simple act of hitting the mute button seriously damaged public confidence in the department and undermined the investigation into what had transpired before the victim, Stephon Clark, was killed. Similar controversies have arisen in San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere when officers involved in fatal shootings inactivated or failed to turn on the sound on their cameras.

Following the Clark shooting in Sacramento, police officials narrowed the number of reasons the audio could be muted, allowing inactivation in cases of sexual assault or when a crime victim won’t give a statement on camera. That’s a good place for Santa Rosa to start their discussion of revisions.

As Aaronson points out, the tapes also can be studied to improve service and ensure police are following procedures designed to protect both them and the public.

Santa Rosa police officials certainly should understand how much they have to gain from such lessons. Last year, officers recorded with their body cams while evacuating neighborhoods during the historic firestorm that destroyed 5,300 homes and claimed 24 lives in Sonoma County. Those tapes documented what went well and what might be needed to facilitate future evacuations.

Police Chief Hank Schreeder should move quickly to revise instructions to officers on the use of the mute button. A silenced camera at the wrong moment could do serious damage to the department’s credibility and to its ability to do its job — damage that could take years to repair.


Nov. 17

Appeal-Democrat on rebuilding communities following wildfire:

It’s time to review how we build communities in California.

Because we can jabber all we want about better managing forests and climate change or no climate change … but it’s going to boil down to what we can actually have control over.

While allowing property owners as much freedom to do with their property as they please, we can’t afford to ignore or avoid thinking about some basics when it comes to developing housing:

. How do we permit people to build a house out in the wildlands.

. How do we invest in the burial of power lines that have now been blamed for starting more than a dozen serious conflagrations.

. How do small towns and cities nestled amongst the forestland engineer safer environments, including ample roadways in and out. How do they limit house-to-house combustion?

. How do we manage forest and grasslands around where people live? And who is responsible for what? The federal government, or state government, or private landowners? How do you allow timber harvest without being bogged down in lawsuits or without upsetting an already delicate environmental situation? How do you even find a suitable market for timber harvested? Who pays to have tall grass and brush cut back?

. How do we invest properly in firefighting infrastructure and manpower?

Fires have been growing in frequency and intensity and there is no end to them some years … the fire season goes on forever.

The Camp Fire is the worst ever in acreage, structures and deaths. It’s going to be bad. The fatigue many of us feel after dealing with the daily bad news is partly because we know, in the backs of our minds, that the news is only going to get worse. There could easily be hundreds of dead when it’s all summed up; and there are many thousands who will be without homes … probably for years.

This is a tough situation. A terrible toll. If we do nothing now? What an utter waste.

Whether you trust in signs or whether you trust in solid logic, it seems that various systems of thought are converging on this … fires have gotten worse, they’ll keep on getting worse. We can’t avoid it.

We’ve advocated for people of this region to keep their spirits up, to not give in to the fatigue and despair bred by the tragedy and the bad news and the acrid, smoke-filled air. That, we still believe in.

But from now on, for the next generation, every election from here on, whether for governor, or congressman, state representative, county supervisor, city council member … we need to require candidates to explain what their priorities are and turn away those who don’t list planning and infrastructure reform to reduce the likelihood of fire.