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Raucous protests against California utility PG&E that is facing wildfire claims

One tearful protester said she was speaking for the dozens of people killed in the Camp Fire "who cannot speak for themselves."
Image: CalFire firefighter Scott Wit surveys burnt out vehicles near a fallen power line after the Camp fire tore through Paradise, California, on Nov. 10, 2018.
CalFire firefighter Scott Wit surveys burnt out vehicles near a fallen power line after the Camp fire tore through Paradise, California, on Nov. 10, 2018.Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images file

SAN FRANCISCO — Protesters took over a California utility commission meeting on Thursday, loudly venting their anger at the state’s largest power company over its alleged role in the state's deadliest-ever wildfire, the Camp Fire.

Demonstrators solemnly read the names of 86 people killed in the blaze in November as the California Public Utilities Commission rushed through its agenda at the meeting Thursday in San Francisco, according to NBC Bay Area.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is facing lawsuits alleging that it improperly maintained towers in Butte County that sparked the horrific fire.

The company said in regulatory documents just after the Camp Fire in November that it may face significant liabilities related to wildfires.

The raucous protest at Thursday’s meeting belied a rather pro forma board action — a unanimous vote ordering commission staff to develop “criteria and a methodology” to calculate how damages that should be paid by an investor-owned utility.

But protesters’ real targets appeared to be state lawmakers over the possibility that the California legislature or taxpayers may rescue Pacific Gas & Electric if the utility giant is hit with billions of dollars in liabilities.

Smoke billows around power transmission lines as the Camp Fire burns in Big Bend, California, on Nov. 9, 2018.Noah Berger / AP file

“We should not have to bear the brunt of pain to bail out PG&E,” protester Jessica Tovar said during her minute of allotted public-comment time. “And you want us to give more money to the very corporation that literally leaves people in the dark?”

As commission chairman Michael Picker told her to “please wrap it up … you’re repeating yourself,” a tearful Tovar shot back: “I’m speaking on behalf of (86 people), who cannot speak for themselves right now!”

State firefighters are still investigating the cause of the Camp Fire, which charred 153,336 acres, burned down 18,804 buildings, and virtually wiped the city of Paradise, California, off the map.

A representative for PG&E, which provides gas and electricity to 16 million people in Central and Northern California, said her agency could not comment as the investigation continues.

“The devastating impacts of extreme weather is one of the most important issues currently facing the state of California today," the PG&E spokeswoman said. "This problem is a complex one, requiring comprehensive solutions from a wide range of stakeholders."

Eric England, right, searches through a friend's car near a downed utility pole after the Camp fire blazed through California on Nov. 10, 2018.Noah Berger / AP file

Many of the protesters at Thursday's meeting held signs saying, “No PG&E Bailout.”

“The time has come for no more bailouts, no more slaps on the wrist. Make this a true public utility accountable to us, the people,” demonstrator Alexander Post told the board.

As the meeting ended, protesters chanted in unison: “We, the people of California, find PG&E guilty of murder.”

PG&E’s stock finished trading at $17.76 a share on Thursday, down dramatically from its 52-week high of $49.42.

Brock reported from San Francisco and Li from New York.