PG&E under investigation for deadly fire

Oct 12, 2020 | Cal Matters

Good morning, California. It’s Monday, October 12.

Elevated fire danger this week

Fire smolders under high-voltage towers in Pulga, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2018, near the reported start of the Camp Fire. Photo by Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group

Another fire season, another investigation into whether PG&E equipment may have sparked a deadly blaze.

This time, it’s the Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which has so far has killed four people and destroyed more than 200 structures. Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, took possession of PG&E equipment as part of its investigation into the cause of the blaze, the utility disclosed Friday. The announcement came just days before PG&E warned it may have to shut off power for up to three days this week to mitigate fire risk amid elevated temperatures and gusty winds.

It also comes a few months after the beleaguered utility pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 Camp Fire — the deadliest corporate crime in U.S. history — and emerged from bankruptcy incurred by billions of dollars in wildfire-related liability costs.

PG&E is already on thin ice with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in July signed a bill that would allow California to take over the utility if it doesn’t meet new requirements he helped negotiate.

  • Newsom in July: “I’m not going to overpromise … on the PG&E front that everything’s going to change overnight. … But we’ve never had … the real oversight and accountability than (sic) we do today. … Let’s continue to hold that company accountable.”

Meanwhile, hot, dry, windy weather is expected to sweep across Northern and Southern California this week, bringing with it elevated fire danger. This is unwelcome news for a state that has already seen fires burn more than 4 million acres and just wrapped up its warmest April-to-September period in 126 years.

Still, firefighters are approaching 100% containment on major blazes, including the Zogg Fire, the Glass Fire tearing through Wine Country and the August Complex Fire, which last week became the first in California history to top 1 million acres.

______________

The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Sunday night, California had 846,579 confirmed coronavirus cases and 16,564 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


post it newsletter bannerpost it newsletter banner

Last week, five ballots arrived at Susan Lambert’s Pasadena home — one for each member of her family, and one for a mystery voter named George. What do you do when you receive a ballot that isn’t meant for you? Ben Christopher explains.


Advertisement


Other stories you should know

1. Newsom, lawmakers tussle over federal money

State Sen. Holly Mitchell rubs her hands with sanitizer before an oversight hearing in Sacramento on April 16, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool

Seven months into the pandemic, lawmakers are still chafing under Newsom’s expanded authority and feeling left out of key decisions — as revealed by letters I obtained from the state Department of Finance regarding Newsom’s request to use $200 million in federal coronavirus funds for Project Homekey, an initiative to permanently house homeless Californians in motels. Lawmakers had already approved a specific plan for how the federal dollars should be spent — and weren’t aware that some would be left over and available to reallocate elsewhere, according to a letter state Sen. Holly Mitchell, chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, sent the Department of Finance. The committee on Wednesday grudgingly approved Newsom’s request — under the condition that he earmark at least another $200 million of the federal money for lawmakers’ priorities, which include food insecurity, assistance for low-income seniors and tenant relief. (The letters were first reported by California Globe, a conservative-leaning publication.)

  • Mitchell: “Since March, the Legislature has repeatedly called for the Executive Branch to collaborate with the Legislature on COVID-19 response. But time and time again, the Legislature has been put in the position of simply giving a yes or no answer to the governor’s priorities.”

The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office had recommended lawmakers “reject without prejudice” Newsom’s request, pointing out that it’s too early to know if the state will have enough leftover federal funds.

2. Workplace safety agency limits inspections

Jose Suarez, a strawberry farmworker, in Watsonville on July 29, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Despite coronavirus outbreaks sickening and killing workers in garment factories, meatpacking plantsfast-food chains and strawberry fields, the state agency that regulates workplace health and safety has conducted on-site inspections for just 5% of COVID complaints, CalMatters’ Jackie Botts reports. That’s a steep decline from prior years, when Cal/OSHA conducted inspections in 25% of complaints. Amid the pandemic, Cal/OSHA has defaulted to sending employers letters asking them to respond to workers’ concerns — an education-over-enforcement strategy mandated by Newsom in a March executive order. But without a workplace inspection, Cal/OSHA can’t cite an employer for health or safety violations — raising questions about how many COVID hazards the agency may be allowing to persist.

  • State Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat: “There appears to be a very direct connection between workplace enforcement and being able to stop the spread in our communities.”

3. Gyms push to reopen

People wait in line at a Planet Fitness in Anaheim on Oct. 8, 2020. Photo by Tash Kimmell for CalMatters.

Speaking of workplace inspections (or the lack thereof), a number of gyms are reopening as essential businesses by citing membership to an association of fitness centers offering medically supervised training for elderly, ill or disabled people. But only one center in California is actually certified by the Medical Fitness Association, CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov reports.

  • Terry Delamater, owner of two Bakersfield-area gyms: “To tell you the truth, I was blown away that they deemed me essential without walking into the club and looking at anything.”

The push to reopen comes amid a mixed coronavirus picture for California. The statewide positivity rate and intensive-care admissions are at an all-time low, and hospitalizations are at a level not seen since early April. But two counties regressed to more restrictive reopening tiers last week, and several others — including San Diego and Riverside — could do so this week. Meanwhile, two nursing homes in Santa Cruz and Shasta counties are grappling with major outbreaks that have infected more than 100 and killed 16, despite state regulations mandating regular testing of residents and staff.


Advertisement


Upcoming events

CalMatters is hosting “Props to You” events — virtual Q&As for you to ask all of your burning questions about the 12 propositions on California’s November ballot. Register hereEach event runs from 6-7pm.

Oct. 21, 5-6:30pm: Rebuilding and Resiliency: How We Need to Handle Wildfires From Now On. In this two-part virtual event, CalMatters examines rebuilding and resiliency in California through the lens of Rebuilding Paradise, a new documentary from Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard. Register | Submit Your Questions


CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom has issued another sweeping order on climate change, but we may not know for years whether it has any concrete meaning.

Clean-energy roadmap: California needs to accelerate toward cleaner, safer, more reliable and more affordable energy sources, argue Kevin Sagara of San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas and Chris Cramer of the California Restaurant Association and California Craft Brewers Association.

A clean-air future: The California Public Utilities Commission must encourage the installation and use of microgrids, writes P.J. Quesada of Ramar Foods.

Key ballot measures: These propositions would significantly impact the state’s ability to address the pandemic and economic inequality, argues Tom Epstein of the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges.

Financial support needed: The state is ordering local governments to create new housing but isn’t giving homeowners a way to finance it, writes Rachel Olsen, a San Diego real-estate agent.


Other things worth your time

A tale of two Orange Counties: Why California’s Disneyland is closed and Florida’s Disney World is open. // Wall Street Journal

Many unemployed Californians are about to get a $300 payment — but it won’t continue. // Sacramento Bee

California kept prison factories open amid the pandemic, and inmates worked for pennies an hour as the virus spread. // Los Angeles Times

Pressure on California Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein ahead of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing. // San Francisco Chronicle

Private firefighting crews spark conflict after allegedly setting illegal backfires amid Glass Fire. // San Francisco Chronicle

Business donors meet their match in battle over Prop. 15’s split-roll tax. // EdSource

Uber, Lyft push Prop. 22 message where you can’t escape it: your phone. // Los Angeles Times


See you tomorrow.

Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven

Subscribe to CalMatters newsletters here.

Follow CalMatters on Facebook and Twitter.

CalMatters is now available in Spanish on TwitterFacebook and RSS.


We want to hear from you


Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

Subscribe

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This