Newsletter: The tough political road ahead for managing fire and blackouts in California


Hurricane-like winds swept across large swaths of California over the weekend, bringing with them not only worries over fires and power shut-offs but also some vexing questions for the state’s politicians and voters.

Simply put: What systemic changes can, or should, government officials put in place to keep these worrisome days of October from happening again?



Gov. Gavin Newsom spent the weekend in Sonoma County assessing the impact of the Kincade fire and meeting with some of those who fled as it threatened their homes and neighborhoods. This is standard fare for governors during crisis situations, and he pledged to stay engaged through the duration.

But Newsom has bigger challenges on the horizon. And he knows it. While wildfires can be sparked by any number of activities — and the cause of the Sonoma blaze has yet to be established — the conversation about when weather conditions merit a power shut-off is a complicated blend of regulation and responsibility. As we wrote over the weekend, the current structure essentially allows any utility company to call the shots.

That’s unlikely to pass muster in fire seasons to come. In an interview Sunday with Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez, Newsom said serious changes are needed in the use of a public safety power shut-off, known in government jargon as a PSPS.

“The PSPS is appropriate, but it cannot be done at this scale that it’s being done,” Newsom said. “That remains the biggest issue: the scale and the scope.”

For the governor and millions of Californians, it’s been a long month. The first power shut-offs came almost three weeks ago, met mostly with public anger. Last week’s blackouts might not have been enough, with questions remaining about the failure of Pacific Gas & Electric’s equipment near the suspected point of origin of the Kincade fire.

Discussion of this and other power shut-off topics has dominated just about everything over the last few days.


“What it feels like right now is just this pound, pounding,” Newsom said on Sunday. “We have to just get through this.”


Amid the many ideas floated during this trying month of flipped switches and frayed nerves is whether Californians — or, for that matter, Americans — should rethink private ownership of large utilities.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), one of the state’s most outspoken liberal legislators, sparked on Sunday an intense Twitter discussion on the subject.

“Please tell me when having a for-profit corporation in charge of a necessary public service (utilities, hospitals, schools) has served the people well,” Gonzalez wrote in her initial post. “The conflict of serving shareholder profits seems to undermine the public good/concern we expect from these companies ...”

Then there were these tweets from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Our hearts go out to Californians affected by the devastating wildfires. Climate change is real, and when I am president, we are going to treat this like the existential crisis it is,” he wrote in the first posting.

Sanders followed it up by saying, “It is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities.”


And we’d be remiss to not point out that Newsom, amid all of the frustrations of the moment, offered unqualified praise for the response he’s gotten over the past trying few days from the administration of President Trump.

The governor described the work of the federal emergency officials as “spectacular.” And he said acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan called him on Friday to check in and see what else could be done to help the state.

“I have nothing but good things to say about the federal government’s support,” Newsom said.


Her win over a Republican incumbent in 2018 was heralded as a huge success story for California Democrats. But now, after several days of intense criticism, Rep. Katie Hill has decided she will not be able to finish her two-year term in the House of Representatives.

On Sunday, the Santa Clarita Democrat announced her resignation after allegations of intimate relationships with a congressional aide and a campaign staff member. It was a quick fall for a new lawmaker who had been seen as a rising star, previously chosen by her fellow freshmen as their representative to the House leadership.

“For the mistakes made along the way and the people who have been hurt, I am sorry, and I am learning I am not a perfect person and never pretended to be,” Hill wrote in a letter released on Sunday.

It will now be up to Newsom to call a special election to fill the remaining months on her term. There’s some flexibility in state law that could allow some of that contest to be consolidated with the statewide election calendar in 2020.


-- The U.S. special forces operation in Syria that led to the reported death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group, brought to a close a manhunt that lasted nearly a decade.

-- Trump attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Saturday and sparred with Sen. Kamala Harris, engaging in a feisty online back-and-forth over their separate efforts to connect with African American voters.

-- Citing gasoline prices that can be 30 cents a gallon higher than those in other states, Newsom has asked the state attorney general to investigate whether California’s leading oil and gas suppliers are involved in price-fixing.

-- Imaad Zuberi, a Los Angeles venture capitalist who flip-flopped his way into political prominence with large donations to Democratic and then Republican campaigns, has been charged with concealing his lobbying efforts for foreign entities, secretly using foreign money for political contributions and fleecing clients of millions of dollars.

-- State agents for years have conducted undercover operations and arrested dozens of Californians for bringing illegal guns and ammunition magazines into the state. But some of those agents have been redeployed in recent years.

-- California voters who are unaffiliated with a political party will be able to participate in the Democratic presidential primary next year, but they will be prohibited from casting ballots for the president or any possible Republican challenger, according to information released last week by state elections officials.

-- Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers, whose resolutely liberal stance on civil rights made him a political institution in Washington and back home in Detroit, died Sunday at age 90.

-- Trump was greeted with boos and chants of “Lock him up!” while attending Game 5 of the World Series between the Houston Astros and host Washington Nationals on Sunday.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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