California wildfires have been a longstanding issue, significantly impacting both the natural environment and communities of people. The state’s climate and vegetation, particularly its vast tracts of forests, make it highly susceptible to wildfires.
Wildfire attorneys, from San Diego to Eureka, and from Santa Monica to the border of Nevada, are often on call throughout the year. There was a time when wildfires had a particular season, but now they seem to pop up all year round. Our California wildfire lawyers can handle claims in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Bakersfield, Fresno, Ventura, Valencia, San Francisco, to Sacramento. Contact one of our listed attorneys to discuss your claim and the possibility of a recovery.
Some of the most notable fires in California’s history include the Camp Fire in 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise, leading to 85 fatalities and massive property loss. The Mendocino Complex Fire, also in 2018, burned nearly 460,000 acres, making it the largest fire in the state’s history in terms of acreage. In 2020, the state faced one of its most destructive wildfire seasons with the August Complex Fire that consumed over a million acres. More recently, in 2023, the Sonoma Shores Fire scorched significant portions of the state’s renowned wine country, threatening both lives and the local economy.
California has responded to this ongoing issue through a series of laws and initiatives aimed at fire prevention, mitigation, and recovery. State law requires homeowners in high-risk areas to create defensible space around their properties, essentially clear zones that can slow or stop the spread of wildfire. Additionally, controlled or prescribed burns are a significant part of the state’s fire management strategy. These carefully managed fires reduce the amount of available fuel and create firebreaks to prevent the spread of larger, uncontrolled fires.
Utilities companies, primarily PG&E, have been held accountable for some major fires. In the case of the 2018 Camp Fire, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and paid billions in settlements. California law holds utilities responsible if their equipment causes a fire, even if the companies weren’t negligent, a doctrine known as “inverse condemnation”.
Major settlements have also come into focus in the wake of these devastating fires. For instance, PG&E agreed to a $13.5 billion settlement for victims of several major fires it caused in recent years, including the Camp Fire. Similarly, following the 2023 Sonoma Shores Fire, several wineries and affected homeowners filed lawsuits against the suspected parties, leading to substantial out-of-court settlements.
In recent news, state officials have announced new funding for forest management and firefighting resources. This includes investments in cutting-edge firefighting technologies and bolstering the ranks of firefighters. The state government is also accelerating its efforts to protect communities through home-hardening measures and improved evacuation planning.
Yet, amidst these efforts, California faces daunting challenges. Climate change has resulted in hotter, drier conditions that exacerbate the risk of wildfires, and scientists predict that this trend will continue. California’s expanding population and development into wildfire-prone areas also exacerbates the risk and impact of these events.
California wildfires represent a significant and multifaceted issue, incorporating elements of climate change, land management, state law, utility company accountability, and public safety. The state continues to adapt and innovate in its response, but the threat remains a considerable concern for the foreseeable future.
California has seen an unprecedented rise in the intensity and frequency of wildfires, causing the state government to respond with new regulations and laws to mitigate the issue. Simultaneously, the role of utilities in instigating and managing wildfires has come under intense scrutiny, leading to new legal responsibilities for these entities.
In 2020, California introduced a series of legislative bills that address wildfire risks and responsibilities, several of which specifically targeted utility companies. These include Senate Bill 901 (SB 901), enacted in 2018, and Assembly Bill 1054 (AB 1054), passed in 2019.
SB 901 mandated that utility companies annually present wildfire mitigation plans to the state. It also increased funding for forest health, fire prevention, and prescribed burns. AB 1054 created a wildfire insurance fund, providing utilities a line of financial relief if they meet certain safety standards. However, the law emphasized that utilities would remain liable for fire damages if their equipment caused a fire, even if they weren’t negligent, under the doctrine of “inverse condemnation”.
Utilities play a significant role in California’s wildfire problem because their infrastructure, particularly power lines, can ignite fires if not adequately maintained or de-energized during high-risk conditions. The deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the 2018 Camp Fire, was sparked by PG&E’s electrical transmission lines. Following this catastrophe, PG&E was forced into bankruptcy due to the massive legal claims it faced and was later found guilty of 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
In response to such devastating incidents, the state has imposed stringent regulations on utilities. For instance, under the new laws, utility companies are required to conduct comprehensive inspections of their infrastructure, bolster their equipment to withstand extreme weather conditions, and improve their systems to shut off power during high wildfire risk.
This pressure has resulted in significant changes in utilities’ operations. For instance, PG&E and other utilities have initiated “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” (PSPS) to preemptively de-energize power lines during high fire-risk conditions. However, these shutoffs have faced criticism for their widespread impact on communities, leading to calls for better planning and communication.
Utilities are also investing heavily in grid hardening and resilience measures, such as undergrounding power lines, employing advanced weather monitoring systems, and using LiDAR and drones for infrastructure inspection.
However, the burden of utility-caused wildfires and their associated costs have sparked discussions about the future of California’s energy sector. Some advocates argue for the decentralization of energy production through local renewable power sources, reducing reliance on large utility companies and their susceptible infrastructure.
California’s new wildfire laws impose significant requirements on utility companies to mitigate wildfire risks. These requirements have led to operational changes within the utilities, but also to debates about the role these companies should play in California’s future energy landscape. As the state continues to grapple with the increasing threat of wildfires, these discussions are likely to intensify.
If you or someone you know has been injured in a wildfire, or had property damaged in a wildfire, contact a California wildfire lawyer as soon as possible.