California’s Inverse Condemnation, Wildfire & Utilities Nexus – My Look Inside

A fair, non-biased description from Bloomberg of what I would call the “Impossible Perfection Standard’ – Inverse Condemnation – unique in its application within the legal system, and how it impacts California’s 3 IOUs (Investor Owned Utilities), from the perspective of one who’s worked in the utility Vegetation Management industry and directly throughout much of Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric’s service territory.

As soon as the suspected ignition location of the Camp Fire was publicized, having worked throughout PG&E’s service territory, I traced the suspected 110 kV transmission upstream. Although 2017 was a huge water year for the Sierras (both good & almost tragic – the Oroville dam almost failing) in recent history, the hydro projects upstream produced over 2,300 GWh. I have never read any mention of this – particularly as much of the discussion in California focuses on climate change or renewable energy deployments.

I also have never read that Sierra hydro traditionally has been used for evening peaks, further reducing California’s need for natural gas single cycle combustion turbine “peakers“, albeit there was never enough hydro capacity to alleviate all of California’s evening peak needs. Most likely, this point is never offered, given most others were never kayakers, where afterwork activities waited on the rivers to rise as the hydro “peakers” ramped up. Colorado’s Front Range hydro offered this benefit as well.

To put this low carbon resource benefit in perspective, Hoover Dam produced roughly 2/3 that of this single battery of hydro plants above Paradise, California. All of the state of Rhode Island generated less in 2017 from all sources. It too, like it’s neighboring states and New York, dependent upon large hydro imports from Hydro Quebec. California, is largely “hush hush” about it’s imports, not just from coal plants, but ironically, large hydro from the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. As my respected colleague, Malcolm Metcalf continually assures me, British Columbia hydro provides California with storage and peaking capacity, through deferred generation and off-peak reservoir recharge – an important consideration as we move towards battery storage deployment.

Here’s a few thoughts, videos [linked to my Instagram account] & descriptions from my trip deep into PG&E’s service territory in the Fall of 2016 to put the stakes and challenges into perspective on relatable terms. The response to the 100 million tree (drought/climate change enhanced) kill-off was unlike anything I saw there 20 years ago. And the ‘deep pockets’ of PG&E through their VM (Vegetation Management) staff and contractors delivered more risk mitigation value than any other agency involved IMHO.

Fall 2016 – New Melones reservoir, upstream of the last dam of US hydro’s “Golden Age”, between Angles Camp & Sonora. About an hours drive north from Yosemite NP.

Electra powerhouse on the Mokelumne River.

The 2015 Butte fire started not far from here [not visible behind “Lone Pine Mountain” featured above], raced down into the river valley, jumped the river and devastated large swaths of Calaveras County. Very similar terrain to that near the Camp Fire [Paradise], and from a “past life” I’ll gladly accept responsibility for putting a “linear clearcut” visible from 20,000 feet protecting 12kV lines between 2 hydro plants upstream.

Knowing a few details about the Butte Fire ignition source, even a “clearcut” wouldn’t have prevented it, a massive departure from the “norm” of a highly unpredictable tree species. Yet, California’s “Inverse Condemnation” standard and the application of it in the legal system, allowed it to be a “binary” ruling, and was named specifically in the Camp Fire lawsuits filed within a day of the fire’s ignition. I too had a “binary” policy on this native tree species in California wether it was live or dead, near the Right of Way, or far distant especially upslope, regardless of age (and often with or with permission if small enough for a Swedish brush axe) – “one cut” at the stump.

I had a discussion while last there with a current VM Utility Forester regarding Grey Pines. He suggested snow acted to “cull the weak” limbs and leaders, while strengthening mature trees. I simply referred back to my “one cut” absolute assurance risk mitigation policy – as we saw with the Butte Fire – complex, arboricultural science-based assessments are not weighed into California’s Inverse Condemnation liability determinations, and lives unfortunately can and have been lost as a result of reasoned[able] assessments.

VM efforts in Fall 2016 in the Pine Lake community near Yosemite. The ponderosa pine is over 100ft tall and around 36″ dbh (diameter at breast height). There’s a 60 ton crane in the driveway with a home behind it for reference. I should have panned around, houses are all around – typical Sierra community/subdivision.

The direct cost to property/home owner – $0. Without electric wires/facilities, anywhere within striking distance, the home/property owner would have been on the hook for all the costs – easily running in the tens of thousands of dollars per lot. Homes more often then not were the most probable target for a dead tree, but no Inverse Condemnation statue there.

And speaking from experience… a tree dies on someone’s property, the first call is to the utility, to see if they will take it down for free. While we were at this site, a nearby resident had us look at his tree[s] – the target was his home, powerlines were both unlikely and outside striking distance.

Here is more risk mitigation in Amador County. Quite possibly, I was too close, but the tree crews were safe, the climber was roped into another tree and the top was double roped to control the fall. They decided to topped this tree first, largely to protect the fence nailed to it, before taking down the rest. This, protection of all property no matter its value, greatly increased the risk to the line-certified climber. Yet it was done anyways in stark contrast to repeated broad brushed claims, by the media or those with an unrelated axe to grind, of negligence (criminal even) on PG&E’s part any time a fire starts and well before and investigation can be conducted.

The power lines are to the right of the co-dominant leader (most likely the result of topping it years ago – to appease the homeowner and maintain “privacy hedges” within the Right of Way – far too common throughout the utility VM industry). Another 100+ foot dead tree was right next to the home about 100 feet off the lines, but if there was only a slight chance it could hit the lines, down it came, which it did.

The views and opinions expressed are are my own. I have no vested interest in any of the companies, or their contractors referenced.  Featured image from the Internet (Getty Images).


  1. According to my observation, after a the foreclosure home is available at an auction, it is common for the borrower to be able to still have some sort ofthat remaining unpaid debt on the mortgage. There are many loan merchants who try to have all costs and liens paid off by the next buyer. On the other hand, depending on particular programs, laws, and state laws and regulations there may be a number of loans that are not easily fixed through the shift of lending options. Therefore, the duty still rests on the borrower that has obtained his or her property in foreclosure. Thanks for sharing your ideas on this blog.


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