Jonah Jellesed

To avoid the fire, a new California policy plans on shutting down power in high risk areas, saving the electricity companies millions while citizens pay. 

At 6:33 a.m., on Nov. 8, 2018, a fire was reported by a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) worker in Butte County, California.

Extreme wind conditions, and an inability for firefighters in the region to quickly respond, helped to create the Camp Fire, which, according to the Insurance Information Institute, was the deadliest fire in California state history with at least 88 killed. 

The cause of this fire was quickly discovered. A PG&E power line went down, due to high winds, and sparks from it ignited the surrounding dry brush. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that “... insured losses from the Camp Fire will total between $8.5 billion and $10.5 billion.”

Since PG&E equipment failure was to blame for the fire, the massive electric company is on the hook for the insurance payouts. 

PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this January as a result of this new liability and millions of Californians are paying the price today. 

Gonzaga students and their families are among the people feeling the direct affects of the policy. At the beginning of each semester, when teachers have students say things about themselves to the class, the most common sentence spoken seems like it's “I’m from the Bay Area.” The “Bay Area” — San Francisco and the massive urban sprawl around it — is currently feeling the effects of the Camp Fire. 

Currently, PG&E is enforcing what its website calls “Public Safety Power Shutoff[s].” This statement comes with the warning, “Be prepared — a shutoff could last several days.” These are power outages that are purposely started during high-risk fire situations. Basically if it gets a little too windy in Central or Northern California, the power gets shut off. PG&E estimates that as many as two million people could be affected this wildfire season. 

But it’s exponentially more complicated than that.

Schools close, retirement homes lose power, businesses shut down, food rots, garage doors don’t open and traffic lights go dark.  There is no more air conditioning and many people lose their only means of communication, as their phone batteries die. People sit in their homes just waiting for the lights to go off. All of this is happening in a first world country, in the 21st century. 

When you look at this whole issue, caused and perpetuated by PG&E, one question comes to mind: is it really all about the danger posed by wildfires? 

The year 2018 was certainly a wake-up call to the danger of wildfires. California was battered toward the end of the year, with entire regions of the state affected. But is a light breeze really cause for shutting the power off? PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January of this year: could that have something to do with this? 

When the power goes off, PG&E saves money. When in the process of bankruptcy, it is important for the company to keep its costs down due to the fact that liabilities accrued during bankruptcy are prioritized over earlier ones. In January, according to PG&E, the company had roughly $58 billion in liabilities. It makes sense that the electric company would want to keep current costs down as much as possible to deal with what forced it into bankruptcy in the first place. 

With the Camp Fire liability, bankruptcy and equipment failure, PG&E is facing a lot of issues at the moment. But, at the end of the day, mismanagement and greed is what’s affecting roughly 2 million Californians — including GU students and their families.

 

Jonah Jellesed is a staff writer.

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