It’s hard to feel sorry for the California utility PG&E, considering that officials blamed its equipment for starting nearly every major fire in the state in 2017. Last year, it was responsible for igniting the Camp Fire, which killed 85 and destroyed almost 20,000 structures. The problem is typically wind, which jostles electric lines, raining sparks onto parched vegetation below.
So just cut the power when it’s particularly hot and dry and windy, right? If only it were so easy.
In fact, that calculation is downright torturous. Cut off power and you risk the ire of the state's Public Utilities Commission: Skirting the danger of starting a wildfire could end up bricking medical devices and critical infrastructure. A utility exists to constantly provide power—to make money, yes, but also to keep society humming along.
“Turning power off proactively in an effort to prevent wildfires is not a decision we take lightly,” says PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith. “On the other hand, leaving power on when there are conditions that are prime for potential wildfires, there are also risks associated with that.”
Facing new scrutiny of its abysmal safety record in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, PG&E twice last weekend cut power to communities facing extreme fire danger, known as a public safety power shutoff, or PSPS. In all of last year’s fire “season,” which is increasingly becoming a year-round phenomenon thanks to climate change, the utility called one PSPS. The decision to call for this year’s first two shutoffs came just weeks after the PUC set new guidelines for how utilities like PG&E should go about this without jeopardizing the safety of the public.
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All well and good, but this more proactive approach will never on its own solve the Golden State's wildfire crisis. “California is built to burn, and it's built to burn explosively,” says Stephen Pyne, a fire researcher at Arizona State University. “If people left tomorrow you'd still have fires that are going to blow to the Pacific Ocean. That's just a reality.”
OK, so given we can’t depopulate the entire state of its nearly 40 million inhabitants, how do we fix the wildfire problem? And what made it so bad in the first place?
Power lines aside, the state plays host to a cabal of conspiring factors that make it a tinderbox. One is forest mismanagement—California simply hasn’t been clearing enough brush, which builds up year after year until it burns spectacularly. In recent decades, cities have been encroaching more onto the wilderness, putting them literally in the line of fire. This is particularly true in corridors where autumn winds accumulate, fanning flames. And all of this falls under the umbrella of climate change, which has made California autumns drier, leading to more dried vegetation for those seasonal winds to bake and then shower with embers.
“I think we were all caught somewhat unaware about how severe the impacts of climate change have been and how quickly they have manifested,” says Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University. “It's a new world for the power companies. Climate change has really changed the dynamic.”
That’s the new normal in a state crisscrossed with power lines. We can’t stop electrical equipment and high winds from disagreeing with one another, but PG&E can get better at proactive shutoffs to silence that bickering. There’s also precedent here. Beginning in 2013, the San Diego Gas & Electric Company has done 13 public safety shutoffs, and says it hasn’t had a major fire. They’ve got an in-house meteorology team monitoring 177 weather stations for temperature, humidity, and wind speed to divine the fire threat.
But again, it’s not as simple as pulling the plug. “One thing people may not understand is if you turn off power during an extreme weather event, even after the wind dies down you can't just turn the power back on right away,” says San Diego Gas & Electric Company spokesperson Helen Gao. “We have people out there who patrol the lines to make sure there's no damage.” If they find something they need to repair, the power stays off.
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So why not just bury the power lines instead of having them hang all over parched California? “Undergrounding power lines is not a silver bullet that solves all of these problems,” says Smith, of PG&E. “When power lines are underground, it's more difficult to locate the source of an outage. It takes more time to repair.” On top of that, much of California’s landscape is rock, which is expensive to drill through.
A potential solution to this infrastructural madness, though, is brewing in the redwoods of Northern California. The Blue Lake Rancheria, a hotel and casino, has developed its own solar-powered microgrid, which allows it to disconnect from the grid and run indefinitely on Tesla battery power and backup generators. If PG&E is considering cutting power during wildfire conditions, it might face less liability if a community can island itself like this. Indeed, PG&E helped develop the Rancheria’s microgrid. As California’s energy system continues to shift away from fossil fuels, utilities like PG&E may well reinvent themselves as energy distributors, instead of producers.
Still, technology isn’t the cure-all for California’s wildfire problem. Even if we got rid of power lines entirely, there will always be chuckleheads throwing firecrackers around in the summer. Accidents happen, like the one that sparked California’s biggest wildfire ever, which involved hammering a stake into an underground wasp nest. So long as people occupy California, people will set fire to it.
PG&E needs to get better at safety, and it can't get off the hook on that. But the grander solution is one of political will and social effort. Federal and state land managers need to do more about brush: Last year California did around 55,000 acres of prescribed burns, while the southeastern US did 100 times more, even though it’s only five times bigger than California. And for the love of Pete, we need to stop building in wildfire zones. For existing cities in peril, we have to mandate that homeowners—every single homeowner—constantly clear brush from their yards and leaves and pine needles from their roofs, decks, and gutters. Take it from Rancho Santa Fe in Southern California, a city that has gone to extreme lengths, including year-round inspections, to make itself virtually wildfire-proof.
“Fire is a contagion phenomenon,” says Pyne, of Arizona State University. “If you treat your house and your neighbor doesn't treat his, you're at risk.” This became abundantly clear with last autumn’s Camp Fire, when vicious winds blew embers miles ahead of the main fire as it approached the town of Paradise. These firebrands landed throughout the place and set homes ablaze, which then spread to neighboring homes and structures. Because these spot fires were pockmarked all over town, firefighters simply couldn’t handle them. Ideally, you’d have properties with plenty of defensible space so residents could stand their ground and douse their homes with a hose instead of evacuating.
Fire experts have known for decades how to prevent tragedies like the Camp Fire. It’s just a matter of will. “I'm looking at these burnings as an analog of mass shootings,” says Pyne. “At some point you decide 'OK, it's time to get serious about this.' Otherwise it's just 'Oh, another school got shot up. A workplace, a dozen people.'”
“'Oh,'” he adds, “'another community burned.'”