Not my normal

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When the power went out and canceled class at midnight on a mystical Friday in October, cries of pure joy echoed through Unit 3. My friend across the hall banged on my door — I was tucked in for my supposed 8 a.m. the next day — and screamed, “Get up and thank PG&E!” 

We may have been cheering then, but in hindsight those three days of canceled classes really screwed me over. I later ended up having four midterms in a single week. Updated syllabi and rescheduled lectures were announced almost on a daily basis as professors tried desperately to keep classes on schedule. It was utter academic chaos. 

In one of many emails sent out during the two rounds of power outages,  UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor of Administration Marc Fisher stated that “prescribed power outages for fire mitigation represents our new normal.” Sure, occasional escapes from our work-filled weeks have us thanking UC Berkeley’s Holy Trinity (duh, Chancellor Carol Christ, Oski and PG&E). But our new reality is being shaped by more than one power company — it’s climate change. 

Temperatures have shifted and our population has expanded out of cities and into areas farther away from central power grids — but the overall power system has remained the same. Global changes necessitate a change in infrastructure, but nothing has happened yet. 

California has always had a fire season. That awkward slice of time after the summer heat has dried them out, but before winter brings rain to wet them again is a natural part of our ecosystem’s growth and development. In the chaparral, old and dead plant materials must be wiped away to make room for new growth and new life once the rains arrive. Controlled burns are also used to limit the possible impact of spontaneous fires by clearing away material that could later present a problem. 

But summers have become longer, hotter and dryer. Autumn winds have grown stronger. Winters kick into gear later and later. Fires are occurring in unnatural places and guys, it’s our fault. California has warmed by three degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. In the last 10 years, our state has had seven of its biggest blazes. 

This trend tracks on an international scale. Ventura is blanketed in smoke. The Arctic is choked in flames. Athens smolders, the Amazon rainforest burns and our planet is slowly being consumed. 

It almost feels as though the world’s literal trash can fire of a problem came out of nowhere. But this climate change issue has compounded itself over time, and our systems are only now buckling under the pressure. No one knows how to react.

PG&E itself was unprepared for this awful fire season. After being sued for being the cause of wildfires and declaring bankruptcy, the company knew things needed to be handled differently. As a result, precautionary shutoffs were announced statewide. 

People were pissed. PG&E’s website crashed and was unavailable for long stretches of time as worried customers sought any sort of information to help them plan. UC Berkeley is a good case in point — during the first round of power shutoffs, classes were unnecessarily canceled for a day because of a lack of information from the campus power provider.  

Policymakers are just as lost as the general public. Fire safety and prevention is solidly in state control, but five U.S. federal institutions also have jurisdiction over fire control. Legislation like the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 attempted to streamline this process of jurisdictional control and appropriation of fire prevention funds, but communication at the local, state and federal level remains strained. Few preventative efforts are implemented on a national scale as a result (see President Trump and California Gov. Gavin Newsom calling each other out on Twitter on Sunday evening.)  

Moreover, increasing habitation of “red zones,” areas where large wildfires are expected and common, complicates this problem, as more people place themselves in the blazing path of danger. Management of these areas where people have indirectly placed themselves in danger zones has also altered how locals will manage the fires that will be springing up there.

American fire measures have often circulated around fire suppression, or putting out a massive fire once it exists. In the short-term, this is the cheapest option. Every large blaze costs the U.S. government around a million dollars to put out, which isn’t much if the country sees only one blaze that lasts a few days a year. In the long term, this method is impractical and costly. Gov. Newsom in a recent press conference laid out a plan to alter PG&E’s fire mitigation habits to prevent future mass confusion-causing power shutoffs, but it is unclear how the state will solidly move forward. 

After this past devastating year, however, the international community is attempting to come up with solutions. Alexander Held, leader of the European Forest Institute, has worked to extend environmental education about fires throughout Europe. In particular, he emphasizes international investment in preventative measures, as opposed to in technology expediting firefighting. The U.S. should follow Held’s advice. 

PG&E: Instating intermittent blackouts without warning is not a reliable 10-year plan. Solutions to make the grid more reliable — to increase usage of solar and wind power, and to stabilize existing infrastructure — should be a top priority. Yes, it’s going to be expensive. But it’s necessary. These fires are not going away any time soon. The government and power companies must establish a new status quo in California.

We need to establish a precedent in the here and now, as a global society, on how we are going to respond to this crisis and future climate-based crises. We — PG&E, the American government and the international community — must be proactive, because mitigation is not enough. Climate change has arrived. Welcome to the new normal.

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].