This past week, Pacific Gas and Electric reached a $13.5 billion settlement for the four fires the company started, including the PG&E Camp Fire. A portion of this will go to victims of the fires. Another part is for rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the fire. PG&E estimates that the damage it caused totals over $30 billion. However, by declaring bankruptcy, the electricity provider hopes to settle all claims with a lower payment.
Compensation for Four Separate Fires, Including the PG&E Camp Fire
PG&E claims that the $13.5 billion dollars will be retribution for four fires in the last ten years: the PG&E Camp Fire of 2018, the Tubbs Fire of 2017, the Butte Fire on 2015, and the Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland in 2016.
While some of these cases are still in court to determine the legal liability of PG&E, the reason that the company has opened up to a $13.5 billion settlement is because it believes that it will be found guilty, and hopes to pay less this way.
PG&E’s bankruptcy puts it in danger of having the state take over. Additionally, the federal government convicted PG&E of six felonies after a gas pipeline explosion in 2010. The company remains on probation because of this event.
Many agree that this PG&E settlement is the company trying to calm survivors of the fires, while not raising any more regulation from either federal or state governments.
The PG&E Camp Fire and Others Could Have Been Prevented
The PG&E Camp Fire currently holds records as the deadliest and the most destructive wildfire in California history. The damages from it totaled an estimated $16.5 billion. The fire destroyed 18,804 buildings.
Flames scorched 153,336 acres of land that was home to both people and California’s beautiful forests and wildlife. And perhaps the most painful number of all is the total deaths. 85 people died in an event that was ultimately preventable with proper power line care and maintenance.
The Tubbs Fire in 2017 held the records that the Camp Fire broke. It was the most destructive wildfire in Californian history at the time, but no longer holds that title.
The Wildfires Caused Severe Damages
Damages caused by the fire total $1.3 billion, in 2017 USD. The Tubbs Fire destroyed an estimated 5643 structures, and destroyed 36,807 acres of nature and civilization. 22 people died.
The Butte Fire in 2015, though not as costly as the Camp Fire, still burned about half as much land. The lower cost is likely due to a lower concentration of homes and towns on the land.
However, this means that the fire burned through more natural habitat and oxygen-producing trees. The damages cost about $2 billion, and 863 buildings burned, supporting the former claim.
The fatalities caused by the Butte Fire were the lowest of the four the company is addressing. Two people died. Nonetheless, it is painful to know that these two deaths could have been prevented.
Finally, the Ghost Ship Fire, which took place in a warehouse in Oakland in 2016, caused 36 fatalities. The people were trapped inside the building and the blaze prevented firefighters from getting to them.
So in total, land burned by these four fires alone totals 126,479 acres. That’s nearly 200 square miles. Undoubtedly, though, of the greatest importance is the death toll of 145 lives.
So it’s understandable that many would be enraged by the lowering of the PG&E settlement from $30 billion to $13.5 billion.
Knowing, Yet Doing Nothing
PG&E cited in reports of the events that lead to the fires that the company had previously observed, but not fixed, many of the causes.
For example, both the company and the California Fire Department have stated that the cause of the PG&E Camp Fire was dry vegetation around the transmission lines.
The transmission lines were neither upkept nor equipped well enough to handle the hot, dry summer that California saw in 2018, even though climate scientists had predicted that the lengths of droughts and the temperatures of the summer months would increase.
PG&E ignored the conclusions of these scientists instead of treating power lines to withstand such changes.
Politicians Outraged By Company Response to PG&E Camp Fire and More
The Californian governor is enraged by the inactivity of the company. Many in the state’s government are also upset with the lack of improvements to deal with the reality that climate change is bringing to the state.
In May of 2019, he stated, “All should be mindful of PG&E’s history of over two decades of mismanagement, misconduct and failed efforts to improve a woeful safety culture… [PG&E] has not demonstrated that it understands the gravity and urgency of the situation.”
Overall, the utility has failed the communities that it serves on two fronts: inadequate inspection of power lines, and lack of action to fix a hazard found during the inadequate inspection of power lines.
By confronting these two problems and becoming more efficient in these two areas, the company could have arguably prevented every single fire that it hopes to address in the $13.5 billion PG&E settlement.
We Can’t Keep Ignoring These Wildfires
The effects of climate change are real and are having real, quantifiable impacts on the country.
Companies that have been profiting while ignoring climate change need to step up and address potential causes of tragedy before changes in the weather escalate the small, fixable item into a forest fire that kills 85.