California Forum

Extreme wildfires are changing California. We need a special session on them – now

A wildfire threatens homes in December 2017 as it burns along the 101 Freeway in Ventura.
A wildfire threatens homes in December 2017 as it burns along the 101 Freeway in Ventura. Associated Press

In the months since last year’s wildfires, gallons of ink have been spilled on these pages and others diagnosing what went wrong. But while we debate, our climate worsens, wilderness areas dry out from drought, bark beetles continue to turn many forests into graveyards, and our communities remain dangerously vulnerable thanks to inadequate early warning systems and infrastructure that isn’t designed to deal with a changing climate.

That’s why we need a special session of the Legislature to focus on protecting our families from extreme weather threats.

California law allows for such bold action by permitting an “extraordinary session” to focus on solving a specific problem or threat. Problems such as transportation, health care and water issues have been recent topics of focus in past “extraordinary sessions.” Given the threat to our families, communities, economy and environment, it is time for our leaders to approve an “extraordinary session” that will not only discuss wildfire risk, but the steps that must be taken to mitigate these risks.

Instead of assigning unjust blame to one actor, we must work together to address the conditions that fed the 2017 wildfires and will undoubtedly make the future wildfires a veritable certainty.

A special session is needed because this is not a San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego problem – it is a state-wide problem that can only be addressed by all of us working together. In that spirit, our state lawmakers must devise a plan that provides the necessary resources and policies to protect our communities from the certainty of the next wildfire.

Moreover, we must use such an extraordinary session to protect California citizens and our families from any attempt to destabilize our state’s energy infrastructure, destroy good middle-class jobs, or undermine the right of Californians, no matter their income or where they live, to reliable, safe, and affordable energy.

While there are many ideas that should be considered in special session, several of which have already been publicly proposed, we must consider the critical steps we must take to make our infrastructure more climate resilient. Consider the fact that the winds and gusts that fueled the Northern California fires were measured by the National Weather Service to have reached speeds of 90 miles per hour.

Does any reasonable person believe that a utility’s energy infrastructure should be designed to withstand winds of such ferocity? If so, then we must address how our state’s regulatory standards and energy infrastructure must change. Instead of assigning unjust blame to one actor, we must work together to address the conditions that fed the 2017 wildfires and will undoubtedly make the future wildfires a veritable certainty.

As a labor leader, I also strongly believe that this special session must not only focus on protecting every resident of our state from the growing wildfire threats driven by a changing climate, but also should work to protect the middle-class jobs that utilities provide in every corner of our state, particularly in many economically challenged communities.

It might not always be clear from the vantage point of our prosperous coasts, but in many economically-challenged cities and towns, good utility-sector jobs are the backbone of a vibrant middle-class economy. As we work to address the vital issue of responding to a changing climate, we must not turn our backs on the linemen and linewomen and their families, who built and maintain the energy infrastructure in this state and have helped California become the leading clean energy provider in the nation.

Some new players in the energy space are trying to use these fires to “disrupt” the entire energy sector. They want to replace a robust statewide grid with a series of micro grids tied to the solar panels they install and the batteries they create.

Beyond the unproven nature of these batteries (which have been known to cause fires themselves) and the unanswered questions of who will respond to a statewide emergency, we are concerned that these new energy companies don’t pay close to a living wage. They have a “green” brand but they treat their workers as disposable.

While our state’s many legislative leaders, experts and regulators have many ideas, and can no doubt develop many solutions on how to address the next wildfire season, we cannot wait much longer. The longer we wait to act, the more disastrous such a delay could be for our state.

Tom Dalzell is a native Californian and business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), representing more than 18,000 men and women across California and Nevada. Reach him at tmd9@ibew1245.com.

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