California's largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday after facing mounting scrutiny for its role in November's Camp Fire.
While climate change is partially to blame for California's deadliest fire, most residents of Paradise, California almost immediately pointed the finger at the largest utility company in the state. The investigation into what caused the Camp Fire is still ongoing, but PG&E cited “actual and potential liabilities” in its decision to file for bankruptcy.
Hours before the fire, PG&E had originally alerted about 70,000 residents that it planned to turn off power to prevent downed lines from sparking — but it never did. Multiple accounts revealed that residents’ power was still on by the time they fled their homes. That created widespread concern that downed power lines or damaged utility infrastructure were to blame for the fire.
“We know, as a matter of fire science, that high winds and dry weather are some of the most dangerous conditions,” said John Fiske, a lawyer representing residents, cities, and counties against PG&E in multiple wildfires, including the Camp Fire. “Those energized lines with thousands of volts of electricity are running into dry brush, dry trees, dry vegetation, and that’s what causes these wildfires.”
Even if PG&E has to pay up this time, serious modifications to California's power infrastructure could be necessary to prevent the next devastating wildfire.
”I do think that we need to really be reexamining ind of how the system is designed and operated in a pretty radical way.” Michael Wara, a leading expert on climate and energy policy at Stanford University told VICE News. ”Imagine a world in which the homes in wildfire country had a solar panel on their roof and a battery in their garage such that when PG&E felt the slightest desire to turn the power off, it could and there would be no impact on the customers.”
VICE News was in Paradise immediately after the Camp Fire to meet residents and learn how California can survive a future of deadlier fires.