Why CA’s fire problem is much bigger than PG&E

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The night my co-op’s power went out, I climbed to the roof with my housemates to observe the motionless, dark cloak draped over the Berkeley Hills, punctured only by the occasional beam of a strong flashlight radiating through the layered shadows of distant trees. By the next morning, 1.3 million PG&E customers just in the Bay Area were without power.

The next morning, I woke to a notification canceling classes the following Monday. But unlike the first notice of class cancellation just a few weeks ago, there was no eruption of cheers from neighbors at the moment the email was sent out, no chatting with friends about the weekend’s possibilities.

Instead, Berkeley was silent. My housemates shuffled away from our typically bustling living area to cafés and friends’ apartments in search of Wi-Fi and places to charge our cell phones. By early afternoon, the common spaces were eerily empty. I too brimmed my bag with homework and set off to a friend’s apartment.

In comparison to the thousands of people currently under evacuation orders or seriously endangered by fire, smoke or power outages, my experience of dishevelment has been at most mild. Still it has overwhelmed me and my fellow power-outagers with a sense of apocalyptic doom.

Rising anxieties about this year’s fires have been echoed statewide. This week California Gov. Gavin Newsom slammed PG&E in a string of statements and tweets: “I have a message for PG&E: Your years and years of greed. Years and years of mismanagement. Years and years of putting shareholders over people. Are OVER.”

According to an article in the Sacramento Bee this week, cities across California are looking into ways to buy PG&E infrastructure to gain local control of the electrical utility or switch to other electricity providers. All this tumult for PG&E is in the numbers: Stock prices reached an all-time low at $3.55 before increasingly slightly before closing.

But blaming PG&E for the disruption wildfire season brings to California each year with increasing regularity and strength is, at best, unproductive. Fixing electrical infrastructure is putting a Band-Aid on the much bigger problems of climate change, poor ecosystem management practices and an increased population of people living in fire-prone areas.

But blaming PG&E for the disruption wildfire season brings to California each year with increasing regularity and strength is, at best, unproductive.

Ecologically speaking, we should not be living in an environment where just one spark from a faulty power line could ignite entire counties. California was made not only to withstand but thrive alongside fire. Our Mediterranean climate (wet, cool winters followed by warm, dry summers) ensures that the winters grow enough biomass that, when dried out in the summer, will serve as abundant fuel for late-summer, early fall fires. Historically, fire touched every area of California with the possible exception of the Mojave Desert. In the eastern part of the state, around the Sierra Nevada, fires were often ignited naturally through lightning strikes, but in the Central Valley and on the coast, Native Americans burned land as a way of tending to their environment and facilitating the type of production needed for food and materials.

Specifically, Native Americans used small, controlled burns to remove detritus and control insects, as well as create pathways or hut herbivory by driving them to a specific ambush location using fire or by attracting herbivory to small grassy areas that formed immediately after the fire. Once a fire reached an area that had been cleared of detritus and other fuels from a previous fire, it stopped. The fires themselves served as a network of fuel breaks and limited the size of each individual burn.

But even as early as the Missionization period, colonizers began to suppress these fire practices. While Native Americans were murdered and forced out of their homes, colonizers began to develop the false naturalist ideal of the “untouched” California landscape. This concept of “untouched” nature has led to the misconception that fire set by humans is inherently bad for an ecosystem. By associating fires with destruction, any naturally ignited fires are also suppressed.

By 1900, fire suppression policies from the newly formed U.S. Forest Service were in full force. This practice of fire suppression continues to this day. We neglect the fact that small, frequent fires of low severity act as vegetative cleansers by removing detritus and thinning vegetation that would otherwise be perfect kindling for another, more massive fire. What we have on our hands is a situation of massive forest mismanagement. Any small spark, whether or not it is from a faulty PG&E power line, has the power to ignite hundreds of square miles of our landscape.

The issues caused by fire suppression have been exacerbated by climate change, which makes the drought that is typically confined to certain summer months in California extend further and further into what should be the wet season. Coupled with an increase in temperature of 3 degrees Fahrenheit occuring in the last century, vegetation has been dried to a crisp, which increases the ability of the vegetation to act as fire fuel.

More and more, we are building our homes where we shouldn’t: the wildland-urban interface.

Despite these increasingly dangerous fire conditions in particularly vegetative landscapes in California, more people are moving closer to nature. More and more, we are building our homes where we shouldn’t: the wildland-urban interface. The wildland-urban interface, broadly speaking, is the transition area between wildlands and urban development. Here, communities are most vulnerable to the forces of fires, yet we continue to build outward into forests, grasslands and chaparral scrublands.

Because of the combination of poor development planning and ecosystem management practices that are exasperated by climate change, 15 of the state’s top-20 most destructive wildfires in terms of deaths have happened since 2000. All but one of the top 20 have happened since 1990. Almost half of these fires have happened during or after the 2017 wildfire season. This list does not even include some of the most noteworthy fires, such as 2018’s Mendocino Complex Fire that avoided human fatalities and structural damage for the most part, but still managed to burn more acres of land than any other fire in California history. In the process, it managed to divert thousands of dollars within the region’s wine industry because of smoke taint.

Our problems are much bigger than the PG&E target we pin them to.

But with all that said, yes, PG&E has plenty of changes it can make to better ensure the safety of its customers (increased vegetation management, system hardening, inspections of poles and power lines, etc.). But since the 2017 North Bay fires and 2018 Camp Fire have been traced back to PG&E — save for the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive of the North Bay fires — the company has, in fact, actively accelerated its commitment to safety.

For example, in 2018 PG&E combed approximately 760 miles for “fuel reduction, overhang clearing, or Enhanced Vegetation Management (EVM),” which increased to 2450 miles in 2019. The goal of EVM is to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation that would endanger communities if ignited. Along with EVM, the company has increased inspections of poles, power lines, and other equipment, as well as increased its percent capacity of system hardening (strengthening poles and covering more power lines) by 880% from 2018-19.

These statistics are according to a report released by PG&E in February that details its progress, as well as its plan for, and ultimately dedication to, safety improvements. Also in the report, PG&E discusses how its plan dramatically increases preemptive power shut-off when it determines that weather conditions are putting many communities at risk for fire.

Our problems are much bigger than the PG&E target we pin them to.

While we can push PG&E to move faster and ask our government to aid it in quickening its infrastructure changes to avoid power outages next year and in the years that follow, it is impossible to ask the company to make the infrastructural changes needed to combat over a century of forest mismanagement, the increasing population in the wildland-urban interface and climate change in the span of just a couple of short years.

In the meantime, I am grateful that the power is off.

In 2018, PG&E did shut off power for about 60,000 North Bay and Sierra foothills customers Oct.14, but failed to do so again when weather conditions may have pointed to the possibility of fire Nov. 6. That morning, sparked by a PG&E line, the Camp Fire began to sweep the town of Paradise. PG&E was willing to face massive pushback against power outages from the public just to avoid a situation like 2018’s fire season. We cannot have a repeat of the Camp Fire. PG&E knows this.

PG&E is in no way innocent, but the public’s tunnel vision on its practices shuts the door on conversation about the more important issues of climate change, development issues and poor ecosystem management practices. 

Since my senior year of high school, there has been at least a couple of weeks each year when the sky fills with brown smoke and the public contains itself indoors or puts on N95 masks. My annual panic rises with the worsening of each consecutive wildfire season. To me, the smoke seems to be more than a symbolic reminder of those lives upturned or ended because of the fires. The puffs of blackened air seem to be placeholders for the “breaking news” headlines, informing us that someone somewhere is suffering. Mixed in that panic is the question: When will it be my turn?

This is to say, the refocusing of energy away from PG&E criticism and toward the actual root of our fire problem is vital to the viability of California. 

Contact Hannah Frances Johansson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hanfrancesjohan.