Opinion by Jim Denney
I have visited Paradise.
Years ago, we visited my wife’s brother and his wife in their home in the northern California town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Our kids played in the snow on a wooded mountainside a short distance from Paradise.
Earlier this month, on Thursday, November 8, 2018, most of the quaint little town of Paradise burned to the ground. One of the thousands of homes destroyed was the charming home where my brother-in-law’s family once lived (they moved to southern California a few years ago).
The fire that destroyed Paradise, officially known as the “Camp Fire,” is now the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. According to latest information, the fire has killed 84 people, trapping them in their homes or their cars as they tried to escape the flames. More than 600 people are as yet unaccounted for, so the death toll will certainly rise. The fire has destroyed more than 12,000 homes and 118 apartment buildings.
It’s a tragedy that does more than break your heart. The horror of that fire sears the mind. Even a believer with a strong faith in God has to wonder why God allows such terrifying events to take place in our world. The question of why an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God allows evil and suffering in the world is a question most of us grapple with from time to time.
Those who are at a safe emotional distance from such incredible suffering can say, “The Bible tells us that we live in a fallen world, and calamity and tragedy are the result of the Fall, the result of sinful human choices.” Yet that answer seems inadequate when an innocent child dies of leukemia or a city is devastated by a natural disaster. Couldn’t a loving and all-powerful and all-knowing God design a world in which innocent people aren’t overtaken by tragedy? I’m not going to try to solve that question here.
Instead, I want to offer this opinion: I believe most of the suffering in the world is a direct result of human free will. We choose to do wrong, or we choose not to do what we ought to do, and innocent people suffer the consequences of our choices.
Take, for example, the tragedy of famine. We tend to assume famines are the result of drought and crop failure. Yet the two worst famines in human history (in Stalinist USSR in the early 1930s and Maoist China in the early 1960s) were the direct result of government policy. Tens of millions died because of deliberate choices made by government leaders.
What about the destruction and death toll in Paradise? The fire that destroyed Paradise was not a natural disaster. It, too, was the result of bad human choices.
Since 2010, the northern California power utility Pacific Gas & Electric Company has caused a series of catastrophes that have killed scores of California citizens. On September 9, 2010, an aging PG&E natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, killing 8 people, injuring 66 more, and destroying scores of homes. The explosion was so destructive that many witnesses thought an airliner had crashed into the neighborhood.
In October 2017, PG&E’s equipment started 12 separate fires in northern California, resulting in 44 deaths and billions of dollars in property losses.
Then, earlier this month, the “Camp Fire” destroyed Paradise, killing at least 84 people. So, over the past 8 years, a minimum of 136 people have died because of actions that PG&E took or failed to take.
Obviously, these deaths were not deliberately caused by PG&E. The power company isn’t trying to kill its customers. But the power company does not appear to be making a good faith effort to protect its customers either. I believe PG&E could do much more to make its natural gas pipes, power lines, and transformers safer and less prone to cause fires. But PG&E appears to be more focused on protecting its profits than protecting the lives and property of its customers.
Prior to the San Bruno explosion, the company repeatedly ignored warnings from its own employees that the gas pipes there were a catastrophe waiting to happen. After the disaster, PG&E cut a deal with a member of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to reduce a proposed $2.5 billion fine to a mere $375,000 — a secret deal that fell apart only after the city of San Bruno filed suit.
The California Public Utilities Commission, which is supposed to regulate PG&E, seems to have a crony relationship with the power company. The CPUC is supposed to protect the people of California, but it seems more interested in protecting PG&E. The giant energy company has enormous political clout with the government of California. In three months alone, from April through June 2018, PG&E spent $1.7 million lobbying California officials to reduce its liability costs and penalties for the fires the company has caused.
In September 2016, California governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 1463 — a wildfire-prevention bill that was passed by both houses of the state legislature, 75 to 0. That’s right, the bill passed unanimously, no opposition, and Governor Brown vetoed it. The legislature had 60 days to override Brown’s veto but didn’t. Why? I’m not sure. As near as I can figure out, state senate leaders decided not to challenge Governor Brown’s veto.
Governor Brown claimed SB 1463 duplicated actions already begin taken by the CPUC. That’s not true. SB 1463 was designed to accelerate the process and give city governments a greater voice in protecting their communities from wildfires. Governor Brown overturned the will of the people of California, as expressed by a unanimous vote of the people’s elected representatives, to concentrate all decision-making power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats who are closely tied to the power industry.
SB 1463 might have given cities like Paradise a chance to advocate for more aggressive forest management around the town (government policies have prevented clearing out dry, dead trees that provide abundant fuel for fires). The town of Paradise might have asked for improvement of the single two-lane road that was the only escape route from town. Local government is much closer to the problems and needs than a state bureaucracy — but Governor Brown’s veto left the bureaucrats in control.
Did Governor Brown’s veto cause the death and destruction in Paradise? No one will ever know. We do know that many California cities (including Malibu, which was also hard-hit by fires this month) wanted to have a greater voice in the state’s fire prevention policies. The Governor’s veto silenced those voices. It’s possible that Paradise might be standing today if not for that veto.
After the destruction of Paradise, state senator John Moorlach (who authored SB 1463), grimly observed that his bill was vetoed because it exposed “the madness of two state bureaucracies and their allegiance to the industry that they were mandated to oversee. They knew that there were serious dangers and calmly told everyone that everything was fine. Regretfully, even the Governor bought that line. Tragic.” Moorlach added that the bill was vetoed because it “crashed a cozy party enjoyed by utilities and state agencies” and would have put an end to their “lengthy foot-dragging behavior.”
When horrible things happen to innocent people, there are always those who ask, “Why didn’t God prevent this tragedy?” All too often, the question we should be asking is, “Why didn’t we?”
Note: Don’t miss my interview with Christian science fiction writer Kerry Nietz, author of Amish Vampires in Space and Fraught. Kerry is a fascinating author who talks about the intersection of faith and imagination. Read “The Kerry Nietz Interview” at WritingInOverdrive.com.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.