Wildfires in California and along the west coast are increasing in frequency and scope. A number of these fires have been caused by utility equipment, with California law holding the utility providers legally liable for fires started from their equipment, even if they did not act negligently.
Wildfires in California
A changing climate, lower rainfall, and drier summers are largely to blame for the conditions that allow for small fires to rapidly surge out of control into full-blown and deadly infernos. But what are the immediate and long term factors that usually spark these conflagrations?
The leading causes of wildfires include:
- Campfires – the restrictions on exactly where you can set up a campfire in the California wilderness are there for a reason, as a huge number of big wildfires are started by one relatively small campfire or stove getting out of control;
- Utility equipment catching fire – this can mean anything from a telephone pole catching fire from an electric surge to a gas truck leak;
- Clear cut logging creating piles of dead wood that burn rapidly;
- Lighting strikes – believe it or not, as much as 20 percent of lightning strikes actually do cause fires, particularly when it strikes a tree surrounded by fallen leaves, branches, or other flammable materials;
- Spontaneous combustion – while rare, it is possible for accumulated sawdust, dead leaves, and very dry twigs and branches to catch fire naturally and soon burn out of control.
It’s important to remember as well that for every ten wildfires, nine of them were directly or indirectly caused by humans.
2018 was witness to California’s deadliest wildfire to date, which saw nearly 90 people killed and over 18,000 homes and businesses destroyed, including the complete annihilation of the mountain town of Paradise.
The ultimate cause of this massive wildfire was found to be equipment from the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Company.
Because so many of these fires have been caused by utility equipment, California law mandates that the utility company, even public utility companies, responsible for the equipment which started the fire, can be held liable. This liability remains in place even if the company did not act with negligence.
This is the strictest policy of any state in the US, known as inverse condemnation, and is both effective and problematic.
In the case of PG&E, the company faced liabilities worth $30 billion, for a company that itself was only worth $12 billion. As a result, PG&E filed for bankruptcy by January of the next year.
While the law ensures that someone or an entity is held accountable for many of the wildfires, it also created a risk that insurance providers would drop public utility companies, such as PG&E, essentially putting them out of business and triggering a chain of events that would ultimately risk denying Californians access to essential services.
Therefore, in July 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that established a $21 billion fund to provide the additional liability costs beyond that which would be covered by public utilities’ insurance coverage.
Some of the most desirable places to live on the west coast are, unfortunately, also increasingly risky places to live. Residing close to heavily forest regions of California is now considered quite dangerous.
Insurance and liability claims can often cover the costs of much of your property in the event it is destroyed by a wildfire, but this also assumes that you either have really good insurance coverage or a really good lawyer. And no matter how good either one of those factors is, it can never replace a life lost.
For the majority of Californians who live close to wildfire hotspots, the safest bet going forward is to relocate closer to the coast, towards an urban center, or further inland.
If you are concerned about the possible need to claim damage in the future, or you have lost property for which you didn’t have insurance coverage, you should contact a California attorney with experience in the field. The same may also apply if you do have insurance coverage and the company is refusing you to cover certain aspects of the damage.
Kerley Schaffer is one such attorney with a proven track record representing clients with success in California.