State Farm discontinuing 72,000 home policies in California in latest blow to state insurance market

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — State Farm will discontinue coverage for 72,000 houses and apartments in California starting this summer, the insurance giant said this week, nine months after announcing it would not issue new home policies in the state

The Illinois-based company, California’s largest insurer, cited soaring costs, the increasing risk of catastrophes like wildfires and outdated regulations as reasons it won’t renew the policies on 30,000 houses and 42,000 apartments, the Bay Area News Group reported Thursday.

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“This decision was not made lightly and only after careful analysis of State Farm General’s financial health, which continues to be impacted by inflation, catastrophe exposure, reinsurance costs, and the limitations of working within decades-old insurance regulations,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

“State Farm General takes seriously our responsibility to maintain adequate claims-paying capacity for our customers and to comply with applicable financial solvency laws,” it continued. “It is necessary to take these actions now.”

The move comes as California’s elected insurance commissioner undertakes a yearlong overhaul of home insurance regulations aimed at calming the state’s imploding market by giving insurers more latitude to raise premiums while extracting commitments from them to extend coverage in fire-risk areas, the news group said.

Click to read the full article in AP News

California Faces a Housing/Wildfire Conundrum

California must ramp up housing construction to reduce the ever-widening gap between supply and demand and ease the high shelter costs that drive families into poverty and contribute to the state’s homelessness crisis.

However, given the seemingly nonstop series of uber-destructive wildfires California is experiencing, prudence dictates that we should also avoid housing construction in what’s called the “wildland urban interface” where fires are most likely to have cataclysmic impacts.

The friction between those two imperatives is played out in the political arena, where officialdom makes land use policy.

A case in point: Two years ago, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, the Legislature passed a bill that would have required local governments to make fire safety a major factor in approving housing developments in fire-prone areas by compelling developers to include protective features.

The measure was passed in response to a wave of killer fires, including the Camp Fire that destroyed the rural community of Paradise in 2018, killing 86 people.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, saying that while he supported its aims it “creates a loophole for regions to not comply with their housing requirements.”

“Wildfire resilience must become a more consistent part of land use and development decisions. However, it must be done while meeting our housing needs,” Newsom wrote.

In the absence of clear policy from the Legislature and the governor on limiting construction in fire-prone areas of the state, Attorney General Rob Bonta has intervened.

This year he joined forces with environmental groups to stall a huge housing and golf resort project in Lake County, where wildfires are a constant threat. A Lake County judge declared that local authorities and the developer had not paid sufficient attention to the Guenoc Valley project’s vulnerability to fires.

The ruling “affirms a basic fact: Local governments and developers have a responsibility to take a hard look at projects that exacerbate wildfire risk and endanger our communities,” Bonta said. “We can’t keep making shortsighted land use decisions that will have impacts decades down the line. We must build responsibly.”

This week, Bonta took another step, issuing a set of guidelines that local authorities should follow in assessing the potential wildfire dangers of proposed developments.

It declares that it’s “imperative that local jurisdictions making decisions to approve new developments carefully consider wildfire impacts as part of the environmental review process, plan where best to place new development, and mitigate wildfire impacts to the extent feasible.”

Unveiling the policy in San Diego County, whose fast-growing inland communities are in constant peril from wildfire, Bonta said, “This is the new normal. When it comes to development, we can’t continue business as usual. We must adjust. We must change.”

Bonta’s guidelines don’t have the force of law, but they contain the implicit threat that his office will intervene if they are ignored, as it did with Guenoc Valley.

Avoiding housing in areas of extreme fire danger would seem to be common sense, but except for a narrow strip of land fronting the Pacific Ocean, the flatlands of the Central Valley and the deserts of Southern California, the state is mostly a tinderbox.

Moreover, Californians prefer, if they can, to live in single-family homes in scenic locales and therefore developers want to comply with those preferences, which is why they propose projects such as Guenoc Valley.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Electra Fire Nears 4,000 Acres, Threatens Power Grid, Officials Say

A fast-growing wildfire burning along the border of Amador and Calaveras counties was poised to become one of the biggest of the season as it approached 4,000 acres Tuesday, prompting evacuations and contributing to widespread power outages across the region.

The Electra fire ignited Monday afternoon near the North Fork of the Mokelumne River and spread quickly amid dry brush and steep terrain, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’re closely watching it as it has the potential to become a large fire,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jon Heggie said.

By Tuesday night, the fire had burned 3,900 acres and was 5% contained, with Cal Fire officials warning that it was threatening more than 1,200 structures as well as crucial power infrastructure.

As the day wore on, Cal Fire expanded its evacuation orders and warnings to include new areas as the blaze appeared to push east from Jackson. Residents in Amador and Calaveras counties were advised to check interactive maps for the latest evacuation information.

“The Electra fire is actively burning, with short intense upslope runs,” according to a Cal Fire update Tuesday night. “Short range spotting with rollout is contributing to the fire spread. The threat to critical infrastructure is being monitored and assessed, and protection plans are being put into place.”

There were 1,334 personnel attacking the fire from the air and ground, Cal Fire said, and more support was en route. The agency said on Twitter that more than 128 engine companies, 22 water tenders, 33 bulldozers, 39 hand crews and multiple aircraft were working to establish containment lines.

Yet wildfire cameras appeared to show increasing fire activity, including thick smoke, spot fires and a large pyrocumulus cloud signaling intense heat.

“It’s smoky. From my office right now, I can see the plume looks like it’s picking up,” said Jarret Benov, operations captain with the Amador County Sheriff’s Office.

Benov said the area where the fire is burning is home to “a lot of vegetation, trees, grasses and fuels.”

“It’s a mountain community where a lot of homes are on a half-acre, an acre, and are pretty forested,” he said.

The fire is one of the largest Cal Fire has faced this year, exceeded by only the 5,800-acre Lost Lake fire that burned in Riverside County in May and the 4,100 acre Airport fire that burned in Inyo County in February, according to the agency.

Though it ignited on the Fourth of July — and amid dire warnings from California fire officials about the risks of fireworks due to severely drought-dried terrain — officials said it was too soon to speculate on the cause of the blaze.

What was more certain was that the state’s landscape was primed to burn after the driest-ever start to the year left fuel moisture levels, or the amount of moisture in the vegetation, dangerously low.

In some parts of the state, vegetation was at least four months ahead of where it should be in terms of dryness, officials announced last month.

The fire was also wreaking havoc on the electric grid, with more than 12,000 customers without power Tuesday afternoon, Pacific Gas & Electric spokeswoman Megan McFarland said.

“PG&E has a number of assets potentially at risk due to the fire,” McFarland said via email.

She said PG&E was “developing restoration plans for non-impacted lines that were de-energized for firefighter safety,” which would allow the utility to restore service to some customers.

Approximately 100 people were evacuated Monday night from the Electra powerhouse, a PG&E hydropower facility near where the blaze ignited, she said.

Though the utility has faced scrutiny for its role in previous wildfires, McFarland said based on the location and timing of the fire and the subsequent power outages, “PG&E understands PG&E was not involved in the ignition.”

In response to the fire, the Red Cross opened evacuation centers at the Italian Picnic Grounds in Sutter Creek and the Mountain Oaks School, at 150 Oak St. in San Andreas. Shelters for large and small animal were also available at the Amador County Fairgrounds. An earlier shelter at the San Andreas Town Hall was closed.

The fire also prompted multiple road closures, including portions of Highways 88 and 26.

The blaze was burning not far from where the Butte fire seared through about 70,000 acres in 2015, but Cal Fire spokeswoman Diana Swart said there had been too much regrowth in the years since for its footprint to act as much of a deterrent.

“The vegetation has grown back,” she said. “That’s a very grassy area; those grasses grow back year after year, so unfortunately we don’t have a burn scar fresh enough that would really be that much of a help to us.”

The priority on Tuesday was keeping the fire east of Highway 49 and south of Highway 88, north of Jesus Maria Road and west of Highway 26 and Railroad Flat Road, she said.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Utility customers will pay $10.5 billion for California wildfire costs

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign legislation Friday to overhaul how the state pays for utility wildfire damage — a complex bill the governor championed and moved swiftly through the California Legislature this week at Wall Street’s urging.

The bill’s passage was a political victory for the governor, but some questioned whether California leaders were just making a down payment for wildfire costs that will skyrocket if more isn’t done to prevent ever-larger blazes.

The administration says the bill will provide investor-owned utilities with at least $21 billion to pay for damage from blazes linked to their equipment beginning this summer. Utility customers will be required to pay $10.5 billion to the so-called wildfire fund through a 15-year extension of an existing charge on monthly bills, one that was originally expected to expire by 2021. …

Click here to read the full article from the Los Angeles Times

California’s ambitious plan to stop deadly wildfires may not be enough

US-FIRE-WEATHERAs California fire officials roll out an ambitious plan to thin the state’s overgrown forests in an attempt to prevent another year of deadly wildfires, a growing body of research suggests their success may be limited.

The foremost strategy, proposed in a 28-page report to the governor last week, is to clear trees and brush near vulnerable communities. Thirty-five areas, including about a half dozen in the Bay Area, are targeted in the safety blitz.

But while fewer trees can mean less fuel for fires, researchers have found that it can also mean undermining a forest’s natural defenses and increase the fire risk. For example, thinning can let in sunlight that dries out the woodlands or create space for new, less fire-resistant vegetation to emerge. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle 

PG&E to file for bankruptcy following devastating California wildfires

A home burns as the Camp fire tears through Paradise, California on November 8, 2018. - More than 18,000 acres have been scorched in a matter of hours burning with it a hospital, a gas station and dozens of homes. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

California’s largest power company intends to file for bankruptcy as it faces tens of billions of dollars in potential liability after massive wildfires devastated parts of the state over the past two years, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Pacific Gas and Electric said Monday that declaring insolvency is “ultimately the only viable option to restore PG&E’s financial stability to fund ongoing operations and provide safe service to customers.”

The California wildfires, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes, have led to a surge in insurance claims. PG&E estimates that it could be held liable for more than $30 billion, according to the SEC filing, not including potential punitive damages, fines or damages tied to future claims. The company’s wildfire insurance for 2018 was $1.4 billion.

The PG&E bankruptcy promises to be more complex and political than most bankruptcies, pitting fire victims, ratepayers, bankers, insurance companies and renewable-energy providers against one another. Homeowners with property insurance will collect from their insurers, and a person familiar with the bankruptcy planning said that hedge funds are already offering to buy settlement claims from insurance companies. …

Click here to read the full article from the Washington Post

Will Regulators Break Up Scandal-Plagued PG&E?

VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is destroyed by brush fire as Santa Ana winds help propel the flames to move quickly through the landscape on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A California Public Utilities Commission report that Pacific Gas & Electric failed to fulfill its responsibilities to properly maintain natural gas lines from 2012 to 2017 even after a natural gas explosion killed eight people in San Bruno in 2010 may be the last straw for state regulators.

On Dec. 21, the CPUC released a dramatic statement saying it would consider drastic steps to address the “serious safety problems” it says the utility has long condoned. The commission said a break-up of the agency into smaller regional utilities or a state takeover would be among the possible changes it examined.

“This process will be like repairing a jetliner while it’s in flight. Crashing a plane to make it safer isn’t good for the passengers,” said CPUC President Michael Picker. “This is not a punitive exercise. The keystone question is would, compared to PG&E and PG&E Corp. as presently constituted, any of the proposals provide Northern Californians with safer natural gas and electric service at just and reasonable rates.”

CPUC looking at seven possible major changes

The CPUC statement said seven possible changes would be considered.

– Having “some or all of PG&E be reconstituted as a publicly owned utility or utilities.”

– Replacing some members of PG&E’s Board of Directors with members “with a stronger background and focus on safety.”

– The replacement of existing corporate management.

– Adoption of a new corporate management structure with regional leaders overseeing regional subsidiaries.

– Linking PG&E’s “return on equity” – the profits it shares with its investor-owners – to its safety performance.

– Breaking the utility’s natural gas operations and its electric transmission operations into separate companies.

– Ending the arrangement in which PG&E is controlled by a holding company so it becomes “exclusively a regulated utility.”

Picker’s statement was a remarkable turnaround from his comments on Nov. 15, when his upbeat remarks about the ability of PG&E to survive its fourth consecutive year of devastating wildfires in Northern California led the utility’s stock price tospike.

It reflected the anger among CPUC officials over a staff report released Dec. 14 that found the utility had systematicallyneglected natural gas infrastructure despite being fined $1.6 billion and convicted of six felonies in federal court over the 2010 disaster in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco.

Utility facing 500 lawsuits relating to fires it may have caused

Even if PG&E survives in something like its present form after the CPUC’s review, its future is still very cloudy.

Because of claims that PG&E was responsible for the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Butte County in November, U.S. District Judge William Alsup announced he was reviewing whether PG&E had violated terms of its federal probation in the San Bruno case.

PG&E also disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is facing roughly 500 lawsuits with more than 3,100 plaintiffs over claims the utility was responsible for many of the dozens of wildfires in Northern California since 2016.

It is also facing wildfire-related lawsuits from the state Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire, Calaveras County and other government agencies.

But while the CPUC is apparently ready for major changes at the utility, it’s not clear yet how state lawmakers feel.

On Nov. 19 – even as criticism of PG&E swelled as confirmed deaths grew in the Camp Fire – Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, was reported to be considering introducing legislation to help the utility deal with wildfire costs.

Holden helped pass a law earlier this year that allowed PG&E to spread out the costs from the liabilities it faced from 17 wildfires in 2017.

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PG&E May Need Bailout to Survive Latest Wildfire

Camp FireHow much of wildfire costs not covered by insurance should be paid by California’s giant investor-owner utilities has been a significant issue since at least 2007. That’s when wildfires ravaged northern and eastern San Diego County, killing two people and destroying more than 1,300 homes.

San Diego Gas & Electric argued that it should be allowed to pass on $379 million in related costs. But the California Public Utilities Commission and state courts – noting the evidence that poorly maintained equipment had been blamed for much of the damage in two state investigations – have rebuffed SDG&E. The utility’s most recent setback came just last week when the state 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego rejected a call to overturn previous rulings.

But during SDG&E’s long fight for a utility-favorable interpretation of liability laws, the debate has become far more high-profile. With six of California’s all-time 10 worst wildfires occurring since September 2015 in areas served by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, the question of what to do to keep the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities in business has emerged as one of the thorniest, most contentious issues in Sacramento.

Now, with Northern California reeling from its deadliest fire ever in Butte County, and with a large area of Ventura County and northwest Los Angeles County ravaged in the past two weeks, PG&E and Edison are confronted with a perverse twist on their successful efforts to get the Legislature to give them relief from huge wildfire costs.

Law protecting utilities doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1

Senate Bill 901 – the main measure passed in late summer to insulate utilities from the extreme costs of fires – doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. That means its provisions to limit utilities’ liabilities if it could be shown they properly maintained their equipment in fire-prone wilderness areas won’t help PG&E or Edison with this fall’s blazes.

Instead, the old standard that led to negative rulings against SDG&E will be used in assessing damages. Given that utilities’ equipment is blamed for helping start the latest round of wildfires, that could be apocalyptic for the finances of PG&E. As of Monday afternoon, the Camp Fire had killed 77, with nearly 1,000 people unaccounted for, and torched 151,000 acres and nearly 13,000 structures.

In the Woolsey fire northeast of Los Angeles, three people have died, while more than 96,000 acres and 1,400-plus structures have burned.

In coming days, the focus is likely to be on how many of the missing in the Camp Fire are dead. It could end up as one of the five deadliest natural disasters in the United States in this century – nearly as lethal as Hurricane Katrina.

But eventually the focus will return to whether PG&E can survive the latest conflagrations even as it deals with potential losses in the billions from previous fires – and how much more state lawmakers and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom should do to help the utility survive in its present condition.

Its company valuation plunged by more than one-third after the severity of the Camp fire became evident, only to jumpsomewhat late last week after the president of the state Public Utilities Commission offered supportive comments.

“It’s not good policy to have utilities unable to finance the services and infrastructure the state of California needs,” Michael Picker told Bloomberg News. “They have to have stability and economic support to get the dollars they need right now.”

PG&E has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy before, in April 2001, when the utility was squeezed by sky-high energy costs after the blackouts of winter 2000-2001. It emerged from bankruptcy three years later.

Lawmakers have little goodwill for ‘criminal’ PG&E

But a huge scandal since then has left Northern California lawmakers with less goodwill toward the 113-year-old utility, whatever Picker’s views and whatever their willingness to pass SB901.

In 2010, a PG&E transmission line exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, leaving eight dead and destroying 38 homes. In 2017, a federal judge found the utility guilty of five felonies for its failings to safely maintain the gas line, and a sixth felony for obstructing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the disaster.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, routinely refers to PG&E as a “criminal” institution. Last week, he renewed his call to break up the utility, saying it could no longer be trusted to act in the interest of public safety.

PG&E shares closed at $23.26 in Monday trading. That was down 58 percent from its 52-week high of $55.66.

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Death toll in California wildfires climbs to 25

FireThe remains of 14 more victims were found in the ashes of a massive Northern California wildfire, bringing the total number of deaths from blazes raging across the state to at least 25, officials said Saturday.

Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said the 14 bodies were recovered in the Camp Fire, thought to be the most destructive wildfire in state history. Nine deaths had previously been reported in that fire.

Two bodies also were found in the burn zone of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California, officials said.

“I know that members of our community who are missing loved ones are anxious, and I know that the news of us recovering bodies has to be disconcerting,” Honea said. “I will tell you that we are doing everything that we possibly can to identify those remains and make contact with the next of kin.”

“My heart goes out to those people. I will tell you that this weighs heavy on all of us,” he said. …

Click here to read the full article from NBC News

California’s wildfire reality needs this new plan

A wildfire rages in Buck Meadows, in the Yosemite National ParkWildfires in California, which for the first time in living memory know no season — the state is dry at all times of the year — are vastly different from the old notion of “forest” fires in mostly unpopulated places.

That’s why a fresh initiative out of Sacramento in Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision of his budget forecast is right to include $96 million in new annual spending, from various funding sources, to support up-to-date firefighting that acknowledges new climate and exurban-growth realities. That modest but important spending will come in addition to $160 million proposed in January to use money from the environmental cap-and-trade funds on timberland-management improvements and fire protection in state and national forests.

Forest fires of what can now be thought of as the old-fashioned, Smokey Bear variety, do indeed still occur, often in remote wilderness areas of California’s many mountain ranges, often sparked by old-fashioned causes such as lightning. And they still need to be fought, or at least monitored. In fact, because of increased dryness and ever-vaster fires throughout the nation’s West, almost the entire budget of the United States Forest Service in recent years has been devoted to fighting wildfires.

But think back to the most recent devastating fires of several months back in California — they were not exactly in the Sierra Nevada.

October’s wine country wildfires in the end became the most financially harmful in our state’s history, with insurance claims of almost $10 billion. The state Insurance Department says that means the several related fires centered in Sonoma and Napa counties went past those in the suburban Oakland Hills fire of 1991 to become the most expensive every in California. …

Click here to read the full editorial from the Orange County Register

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