Blaming a Company for California Fires: The PG&E Controversy

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By Chad Olson, Staff Writer

In 2017, there were four extremely large fires in Northern California, all of them surrounding the city that I was living in at the time. It was an unusually windy night, which had caused multiple power lines to hit trees and start the fires. I remember waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. The power in my home had gone off, and I suppose the lack of air conditioning woke me up. There was an eerie red glow coming from the window that seemed to breath as I looked at it. I couldn’t see the source from my window, but as soon as I went in the backyard I faced a fire climbing over the top of the mountain. As I walked around the house, I could see another wall of flames from the front yard. Soon after the realization that my family and I were surrounded by these flames, I heard the transformers start to explode. I watched as my friends’ homes went up in flames across the valley. It was a surreal night, that ended up stretching into one of the most stressful months of my life.

Courtesy of Pond5.

Evacuations started the next day, but many people had already left the county. The first night after the evacuations was the most difficult. Some people saw the large-scale evacuations as an opportunity to loot. Signs started appearing at the entrances of neighborhoods with the phrase “you loot, we shoot,” and more than once my neighbors asked me to join the armed night patrols. It seemed like my neighbors were determined to recreate the famous Mel Gibson movie Mad Max. As things started to calm down, everyone’s attention turned to understanding the source of such despair. What caused these fires? The answer: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the local utility provider.

As investigations intensified, it became clear that PG&E had neglected to properly trim trees near power lines, which made it easy for these lines to strike trees during high winds. PG&E had also caused a previous wildfire in 2015 due to a similar issue. More recently, the city of Paradise, Calif. also went up in flames due to a piece of equipment that should have been updated 25 years ago. Soon after the fires, PG&E faced largescale backlash and eventually the company declared bankruptcy. It was at this time that PG&E came out with a year-long plan to implement proper maintenance and clear the tree branches close to power lines. After the year was up, PG&E only was only able to achieve one third of what they had planned. For this reason, many are seeking to hold PG&E responsible for the most recent Kincade fire. But, is PG&E solely to blame?

As PG&E was trying to finish their year-long maintenance plan, citizens in the community became uncooperative. Many of them prevented PG&E from cutting down the tree branches that were closest to the power lines because they wanted to preserve the beauty of the Californian forests. So, at what point can blame for fires be continually placed on PG&E? Now that they are trying to correct the problem, citizens are choosing to keep the trees. Will PG&E be blamed again in the future, even though people won’t let them fulfill their social responsibility to stakeholders?

I personally believe that this is a fundamental issue surrounding the topic of corporate social responsibility. In the current political and social environment, businesses are expected to take a larger and more active role as an organizational citizen. While this is a step in the right direction, and can hopefully help avoid future accidents like Deepwater Horizon or the mercury spill in Peru, I sometimes find myself wondering if we as a society are ready for these companies to take a more active role. Can the majority understand the reasoning behind some of the actions these corporations will have to take in order to maintain their societal responsibility?

Courtesy Heavy.com

To illustrate my point, we will now return to PG&E. In an attempt to protect properties, citizens, and the environment during this year’s fire season, PG&E was forced to improvise as they were incapable of reaching their preventative measures throughout the year. Since active power lines were still not clear of tree branches, PG&E decided to implement rolling blackouts during periods of high winds. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Californians that were affected by these blackouts were extremely unsupportive, many of whom also lived in the communities that had prevented PG&E from trimming the trees during the year. PG&E is now facing backlash from investors that are suing the company over the implemented blackouts.

At this point it is important to mention that PG&E is not free from fault. As already mentioned, many investigations found that the utility company had long neglected its equipment and routine trimming procedures. The company was responsible for the fire of 2015, four fires in 2017, and the Paradise fire. Of course they have to correct the issues surrounding these events. Although I am not sure that they were expecting the resistance that they received after the mayhem of those fires.

The rising demand for corrective action has woken PG&E from its stupor. Actions are being taken, even if they are unpopular. The responsibility that we as a society now demand organizations to take is being fulfilled. However, a new question must be asked as we now analyze the actions that PG&E has taken to protect its stakeholders. If we as a society demand companies to take a larger and more responsible role in our society, at what point do we have to exercise trust in them?

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