Who’s to Blame for Power and Cell Phone Problems During Wildfire Season?

November 6, 2019 Updated: November 6, 2019

While many fires in the most recent round of wildfires in California have been fully contained, other blazes continue to burn, with the massive Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, the largest thus far, at 88 percent containment after burning over 77,000 acres.

The wildfires and dangerous weather conditions have caused a variety of issues across the state, including lack of cell phone reception and other perceived failures that have been variously blamed on utility companies, regulators, and politicians.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Les Guliasi, president of the Power Association of California, told The Epoch Times. “There isn’t any single entity to blame for this. There is a broader context to understanding the proliferation of these widespread wildfires.”

Guliasi, who is also an independent energy consultant who resides in Berkeley, believes that the number, extent, and magnitude of California wildfires in the past few years has defied most expectations.

“It’s always easy to look back and say, Sure, the Public Utilities Commission probably should have allocated more money to the utilities to do things with their systems,” Guliasi said. “Sure, the utilities probably should have been more aggressive and … taken stronger measures to protect their equipment so they wouldn’t contribute to wildfires.”

However, Guliasi suggests that one important dynamic involved in this situation could be the fact that California interprets the law of inverse condemnation “pretty strictly.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a public entity, like a municipal utility … or you’re a private, investor-owned utility,” Guliasi said. “The courts have ruled there’s really no difference between the two. You’re treated the same way with respect to damages.”

“The legislature has refused to address that issue and perhaps change the law,” he added.

Guliasi pointed out that this scenario has led to liabilities for companies like PG&E that pushed them into bankruptcy.

Others suggest that utility companies insist upon a more laissez-faire approach to regulation so that their interventions are voluntary rather than mandated.

“When the [California Public Utilities] Commission (CPUC) adopted customer protections for a declared state of emergency, the companies challenged them and issued an application for re-hearing basically saying [they] voluntarily want to do this … don’t make it a requirement,” Ana Maria Johnson, the program manager at the Public Advocates Office, told The Epoch Times.

But allowing these utilities to intervene on a voluntary basis has resulted in power outages that have been blamed for preventing consumers from using their cell phones during emergencies.

Johnson said that one recent power shut off “highlighted how vulnerable the communications network is.”

“When over 80 percent of 911 calls are made over wireless networks and you are not able to use your phone, it puts consumers at risk,” she said. “It’s a public safety concern. These power outages have shown that companies are not prepared to have continuity of service when there is no power.”

“The [CPUC] can take immediate action to require them to have backup power and wireless facilities,” Johnson added. “We are hopeful that with the new president, President Batjer, [these] companies are held accountable [so] consumers are not put in harm’s way.”

Constance Gordon, public information officer at CPUC, has indicated that such a quick fix is easier said than done.

“The communications industry argues that CPUC doesn’t have the authority to adopt protections because they say that the feds preempt us,” Gordon told The Epoch Times. “We are concerned about the resiliency of communications and we would like them to do things like deploy mobile equipment including things like Cells on Wheels and Cells on Light Trucks to supplement service in areas that [experience] problems. But then they say that we don’t have any authority so it’s just a huge mess.”

PG&E has released an update on its website reporting that they have restored power to essentially all customers impacted by recent Public Safety Power Shutoff events.

Guliasi, who recently went without power for 42 hours, indicated that the wildfires and power shutoffs did have one relatively positive side effect: bringing people together.

“It’s given people a lot to talk about and a reason to call their friends,” he said. “It’s connected people — maybe better than Facebook.”

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