Will unyielding wildfires ever stop plaguing California? And who’s footing the bill?


The most deadly and destructive wildfire in state history ripped through Northern California three months ago. Now, Valley residents are taking action ahead of another wildfire season.

In the Fresno County foothills, a group of residents has been working for years to protect their community from a devastating wildfire. The ”Oak to Timberline Fire Safe Council” is tasked with reducing the wildfire threat in communities West of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, North of Tulare County and South of the Kings River. 

The council is comprised of volunteers, including Jack Huneke and Julie Harcos. The couple has lived in the Fresno County foothills for nearly two decades. They joined the group to protect their home and surrounding neighborhoods. The council is assessing neighborhoods considered at “very high risk.” Their main concerns are dead and dying trees, caused by drought and bark beetle, and ensuring a clear evacuation route in event of a major wildfire.

“That’s the fire hazard that we’re fighting,” Huneke said. 

“A lot of those roads are dead ends and that way needs to be made accessible in a fire,” Harcos said.

The need for a clear evacuation route was made clear during the Camp Fire in Butte County. The November blaze left neighborhoods unrecognizable, claimed 85 lives and put forest management in the national spotlight. The cause of the fire remains under investigation; however, PG&E is facing hundreds of lawsuits for their possible role in the Camp Fire and series of fires through Wine Country in 2017. Bills could soon skyrocket due to several factors.

The first is a new state law, SB901, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2018. It states some wildfire-related costs can be passed to ratepayers at the discretion of the Public Utility Commission (PUC). The Commission is now holding meetings to set those determinations. 

In December, PG&E also proposed a $1.1 billion dollar rate hike to the PUC. According to PG&E, over half the money would benefit wildfire safety. The PUC will hold public hearings on the matter this summer. If passed as proposed, bills could increase over $10.50 per month starting in 2020 through 2022.

Then in late Janaury, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Jim Patterson, Fresno Assemblyman (R) and Vice Chair of the Assembly Utility and Energy Committee, says the bankruptcy could also hike prices.

“I think there’s a real potential for some parts of California to have skyrocketing electricity and at the same time be threatened with brown-outs and blackouts,” Patterson said. “This bankruptcy is very complicated and I think it’s going to be two years or more before we find out what PG&E is going to look like.”

In a statement, PG&E said in part, “We intend to create a more sustainable foundation for the delivery of safe, reliable and affordable service in the years ahead.”

In the meantime, Huneke and Harcos are working with the council to prepare for another wildfire season.

“I can get out, and firefighters can get in… it gives us a chance,” Huneke said.

The work done by the Oak to Timberline Fire Safe Council is made possible through grants. Since 2016, the group has cut down over 3,000 dead and dying trees in the area they serve.

If you would like to volunteer, click here.

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