I have been involved in a discussion about why PG&E is responsible for the damage from wildfires which they started by poorly maintaining their equipment, and the trees around it. The story is somewhat complicated, although the basic facts are actually fairly simple. There is enough blame to go around, but to understand it you first have to understand the setting.
California has always been a land of frequent fires, and the natives formerly set fires every year to keep down the underbrush. This sometimes resulted in larger forest fires, which they simply let burn, because they didn't live in the forest. They lived in clear spaces. And the ones that did live in forest lived there seasonally, and they'd set the fires when they moved to another location — typically the coast. This coast used to be positively overflowing with food, the natives literally couldn't put a dent in it. Nor, of course, did they try.
But it's also worth noting that back then, the redwood forest was a single unbroken trail leading from a bit south of Point Sur (which is still wooded, because it was lumpy and inconvenient to develop) and well into Canada. It also reached inland substantially, well into the valleys after the coast range. Coast Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens) has flat bladed leaves which capture moisture from fog (which is why it has to get so tall — it's a windtrap) and channel it down to the ground, producing a rain forest. And by their nature, they alter soil composition in a way that discourages undergrowth. It does not prevent it; a few things can grow beneath them, like Bay Laurel or (sadly) poison oak. The redwoods are highly flame-resistant, so this stuff was able to burn out without causing larger fires, so long as it was done regularly.
However, the situation now looks very different. We've built houses in forests, where they do not belong. The natives didn't expect anything in a forest to persist, that's why they burned everything. It's moldy in there. The natives were smart enough to identify places which were too moldy to sustain healthy human life, and simply not live there, but we just go ahead and do it anyway. Rip apart any house in the mountains, no matter how high-dollar, and you'll find mold in the walls. Governments derive their tax base from the granting of building permits, so they granted permits to build in places that any native could have told them were stupid. But nobody asked, being way too busy exterminating them in order to take their land.
It's worth mentioning here that the majority of California's forests are "managed" by the federal government, as there are large swaths of BLM and park land which nobody lives in, and the federal government has actually been negligent in maintaining them, not California. You might take for example the Mendocino National Forest, site of the largest fire complex in national history. We didn't create that problem, the feds did. Perhaps that's why Trump backed off his rhetoric about how California hasn't been raking its forests enough.
Anyway, enough back story, let's talk about PG&E.
When California deemed that the power company would be financially responsible for the damage caused by those massive fires - is that correct?
Not exactly. PG&E is on the hook so far for 1 billion in Paradise and Butte County and 2.5 billion in wine country, plus possibly as much as 18 Billion in the future. And they still have all this garbage equipment out there that may start more fires.
You might think it's disingenuous to expect PG&E to foot the bill while there are literally millions of people at fault for the situation (if you count everyone who decided to live in a forest) but the fact is that PG&E willfully deferred maintenance time and again in order to produce more profit, and spent money on PR and lobbying on the issue in an attempt to obscure their culpability. Over the last few decades of negligence, they paid out 4.5 billion dollars in stock dividends, and hundreds of millions in executive bonuses while the corporation was willfully ignoring its contractual responsibility to perform line maintenance, and either misappropriating or simply failing to spend millions of dollars in additional funds which Californians made available to PG&E for that purpose. And they rode that horse straight into the dirt, actually increasing dividends in 2016, which continuing to avoid their contractual responsibilities.
So essentially California is forcing the power companies to kill power during times of maximum fire risk, because of the liability California has burdened the power companies with - they really don't have any other choice if they don't want to be sued out of existence.
Kind of. PG&E is pretty much guaranteed to be sued into a dark hole at this point, they're already obligated to pay far more than they can afford, and their request to put forth their own restructuring plan was denied. Thankfully, the shareholders are going to have to help them with this one, which is only just because they have been profiting from the situation. Except, of course, the traders who bought it because they thought it was undervalued. If they haven't already jumped out of windows, you can expect that any time. Judge Alsup did require PG&E to throw the switches in high winds, because PG&E told him that they cannot avoiding starting more fires any other way. But that is in turn due to their willful negligence.
So now, if California is requiring the power companies to give refunds during these outages, the power companies will have even less money to try and maintain their lines, and thus the fire risk will increase even more.
The only thing that really makes sense at this point is to take the whole thing away from PG&E, which has proven itself to essentially be a criminal conspiracy to defraud The People of California which has also killed many of us and destroyed many billions of dollars in property, due to willful negligence. And of course, I support throwing all the chief executives from the last century that are still alive into prison after reclaiming all their ill-gotten gains. Yes, PG&E really has been around and neglecting maintenance for that long.
So in summary: A substantial portion of the blame for the underlying situation does fall on California, but lots of it actually belongs to the federal government, too. PG&E has been willfully avoiding performing contractually obligated maintenance, and during the time it's been doing that it's paid out well over $5B in stock dividends and bonus packages for executives, while not one single cent should have been paid in either while they were willfully criminally negligent. They killed people for profit, and now the only reasonable remedy is to nationalize PG&E, and spend every penny of profit from this day forward on equipment upgrades, because PG&E is clearly constitutionally incapable of doing the work they were obligated to do.
P.S. This could never have happened in the first place without something being rotten at the CPUC, and we should be investigating just what was greased, and when, and by whom, because something is very rotten there. But they didn't make PG&E do this stuff, as some have wrongfully asserted. They only permitted it to happen.