Environment

Ex-California governor predicts state can turn around wildfire crisis in less than two years

Key Points
  • Former California Gov. Gray Davis says the state can turn around its wildfire crisis in the next 18 months if it does the work that's needed.
  • Technology should play a major part to help "keep people from the horror of, not only of blackouts, but of planned blackouts, presumably to stop more wildfires," the Democrat says.
  • Wildfires have been ravaging California for the past week and utilities have been cutting power to prevent downed lines from starting more fires.
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Former California Governor Gray Davis on solutions to the wildfires, PG&E and more

California could turn around its wildfire crisis "in the next 18 months," said Democrat Gray Davis, governor of the state from 1999 to 2003.

"But it won't happen without acknowledging everybody has some part of the blame to bear," Davis told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday, while calling for a state wildfire summit. "The focus ought to be how to use technology to up our game ... to keep people from the horror of, not only of blackouts, but of planned blackouts, presumably to stop more wildfires."

Wildfires have been ravaging California for the past week, with current Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a statewide emergency as high winds spread flames. Utilities have been cutting power to prevent downed lines from starting more fires. On Thursday, the dangerous winds were expected to linger for a final day as firefighters work to temper the flames.

Davis knows how difficult it can be when the lights go out. He was recalled in his second term in 2003 largely because of his handling of rolling blackouts in the state following energy deregulation and market manipulation by Enron and other companies. "My situation was totally different, so I don't want to dwell on that," Davis told CNBC, as he praised Newsom's handling of the current wildfire situation. "Newsom has done more than any governor since the mid-70s to prepare for this kind of natural disaster."

Windstorms are not uncommon during the fall in California, where a series of destructive wildfires in recent years were fueled by strong gusts. However, Davis said there are strategies that can help mitigate the damage. He cited Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric, commending its "world class weather forecasting unit." SDG&E in November 2017 adopted a new fire watch tool that consists of 15 high-definition cameras livestreaming in fire-prone areas.

"San Diego was the first to adopt these infrared cameras, which I believe will be the solution to this problem, probably in the next 18 months," Davis said on "Squawk Box." Those cameras, coupled with artificial intelligence, can spot wildfires and enable quick response by firefighters.

Southern California Edison, an Edison International unit, also has installed fire-monitoring cameras in Orange County. Last November, as CNBC reported, Pacific Gas & Electric was expected to become a major player in the early warning camera expansion in California, with the utility planning to have 600 cameras by 2022.

This week, however, PG&E has drawn widespread condemnation for staging three fire-prevention blackouts, which cut power to millions of customers. Service was restored to hundreds of thousands of people Wednesday, with the rest expected back online sometime Thursday. SDG&E also cut power to some customers in high-risk areas.

On Tuesday, California Rep. Ro Khanna told CNBC that cutting power should not have to be the solution, stressing utilities should have been and should still be updating their electrical systems. "In the 21st century, when you have a state that has Apple, Google and Tesla in it, there is no excuse that we can't get power to our people on a regular basis," said the Democrat whose district spans the Silicon Valley tech hub.

PG&E has said that customers can now expect rolling power outages for another 10 years as it upgrades its electrical systems in response to more extreme weather conditions in California. "This has been a decades-of-neglect process that has led to this crisis," Khanna said. "There has been systematic neglect in the infrastructure and the forest management."

PG&E, while acknowledging it's hard on customers, defended the move.

"We're coordinating with federal, state and local partners to minimize risks stemming from the shutoffs until the extreme weather event has subsided," PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Robison said in an emailed statement responding to Khanna's criticism. "This is a safety issue, and we're committed to doing what is necessary to keep our customers safe."

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Key Points
  • The Forest Resilience Bond was developed by the nonprofit investment firm Blue Forest Conservation, a Sacramento, California-based start-up, in partnership with World Resources Institute.
  • It seeks to lower the risk of dangerous and destructive wildfires by shifting the heavy costs of forest restoration from the state's forest service to private investors.