On June 30, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill raising safety standards for PG&E and empowering the California Public Utilities Commission to impose discretionary measures. Fresh out of bankruptcy, PG&E will face heightened supervision as the state works to prevent the repeated fiascos of recent fire seasons.
But lawmakers cannot foist all the blame onto PG&E, nor can utility reforms alone protect the state. In the past three years, Californians have witnessed the two largest and five of the deadliest fires in state history. All of these are attributed to power lines, but each burned hotter, faster and longer — and affected more people — because of state complacency.
Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave California’s energy infrastructure a D-minus grade, citing “aging equipment, inferior design, and poor right-of-way vegetation management.” For generations, California has also neglected its vast forests and agricultural regions, undercutting the state’s drought resilience and producing optimal fire conditions.
Last March, Newsom expedited anti-wildfire projects that would reduce excess fuels and fire hazards in 200 fire-vulnerable communities. Such projects are long overdue and insufficiently ambitious, but their urgent implementation is a step in the right direction. Few plans have followed, however, and the existing plans have saved time primarily by shortcutting environmental considerations and permits.
Recent years’ fire responses have been similarly dismal: Climate change has made annual wildfires inevitable in Western states, but power outages for millions cannot become a way of life. California will need to modernize its infrastructure, upgrading everything from faulty power lines to water-collection systems. The state and high-fire-risk counties must invest in better ongoing forest management and develop sustainable water-use regulations to combat droughts.
Cities, too, must face the fact of fires and act accordingly, building community refuge centers in low-risk areas to absorb those displaced from their homes. Amid an unrelenting pandemic, further measures will be necessary to ensure such centers don’t become superspreader sites. Municipal governments should also ask residents to contribute by restricting their water use; Cal Fire encourages homeowners to create defensible space and choose fire-resistant landscaping.
Cities are also implementing obvious but unprecedented strategies: Last summer, Berkeley conducted its first-ever wildfire drills, preparing first responders for future crises but exposing present unreadiness. Such programs should be mandated statewide and should occur with far more frequency, especially as fire season becomes a year-round threat.In the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland firestorm, dozens died, homes burned by the thousand and property damage neared $1.5 billion — all in barely four days. As COVID-19 eclipses all other issues, leaders are liable to forget that firefighting measures must begin now. And no matter how swiftly the state acts, wildfires will be still swifter.