The contrast this fall was sharp and obvious, yet state officials who regulate the electric companies that started most of California’s big wildfires in recent years didn’t appear to notice:
While those state regulators have never named even one of the executives or employees of Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas & Electric who decided to let hazardous vegetation remain near power lines and spark massive wildfires, marine investigators examining two recent, but far less harmful, disasters have gone after individuals, aiming to penalize them for misdeeds or negligence.
Make no mistake about it, the burning of a U.S. naval vessel, the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard while at anchor in San Diego in 2020, and the large oil spill that fouled stretches of Orange County beaches in October, were plenty bad.
In one case, the U.S. Navy lost a $1.2 billion-dollar ship to arson and a slow response to it, while the other saw beaches polluted to an extent unseen for at least the last six years, while the survival or continued activity of some wildlife was put at risk in the oil spill. Stretches of beach enjoyed by many thousands of Californians were placed out of bounds at a time when they normally would have been crowded.
But neither disaster caused disruption or damage comparable to what’s been inflicted by even one of the several wildfires sparked in many parts of California by utility company errors or negligence. Those blazes also put drinking water supplies at risk for survivors who could return home.
And yet, while the Navy has named names in the Bonhomme Richard disaster and the Coast Guard continues trying to find those responsible for dragging an anchor across an oil pipeline whose location was well known, no personal responsibility has been assessed for most wildfires. Rather, they are routinely blamed on the big utilities, with the identities of decision makers involved never revealed and those individuals never prosecuted or publicly questioned.
The Navy left no doubt who would be held responsible for the destruction of the Bonhomme Richard, which burned for almost five days at its berth. Plumes of noxious smoke blanketed parts of San Diego and suburban National City while the fire smoldered.
Investigators said a junior sailor, Seaman Apprentice Ryan Myers, who had dropped out of SEAL training after just five days, ignited the fire. He was due in court this month for a preliminary hearing.
But the Navy didn’t stop with him. It named the officer of the deck who allegedly hesitated to sound an alarm when he saw smoke from the fire. Investigators found ship’s fire crews were poorly trained, with 90 percent of on-board fire stations not functioning when the fire started. Officers will be cashiered and enlisted sailors lose rank or be discharged before the Bonhomme Richard story is done.
The Coast Guard, about a year later, focused immediately on ships that anchored near the pipeline carrying oil ashore from an offshore rig. It quickly named a German-owned ship, the Rotterdam Express, as a prime suspect, That ship was closest to the pipeline before it broke.
Officers and crew will be charged when and if the Coast Guard determines with some certainty who was at fault for what. This may take weeks or months, but justice will be served on those responsible, just as it was on Francesco Shettino, captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it capsized near Sardinia nine years ago. It took four years before Shettino was sentenced to 16 years for negligence and manslaughter in that accident, but Shettino now resides in a Rome prison.
By contrast, individuals responsible for California’s many wildfires enjoy normal lives, most of them treated like upstanding citizens and none stigmatized for disastrous decisions they made, far more damaging than those of Navy personnel involved in losing the Bonhomme Richard or any choices made near the Orange County oil spill.
The bottom line: It’s high time California’s landlocked authorities learn something from maritime authorities who exert firm discipline when seamen make costly errors. But so far, there is no sign they've even noticed the vast difference in their approach.