Fire-prompted power shutoffs that left millions of Californians in the dark have pushed Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), one of the nation’s largest utilities, to the brink of a state government takeover.
The blackouts touched off public protests, calls by legislators and local officials for dismantling or restructuring PG&E and warnings from scientists that California faces more frequent and intense fires in the future because of global warming.
“We did not get out ahead on grid management and climate change,” said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “We’re talking about PG&E but this is also true of regulators and the state.”
What California does — or fails to do — to prevent and combat wildfires has impact beyond state borders. Wildfires are a scourge of the West, and the firefighting practices of one state are often copied by another. Mutual aid pacts enable firefighting crews to travel across state borders.
In recent years California has been the state most in need of assistance. 2018 was the deadliest wildfire season ever recorded in the Golden State, as more than 8,500 fires destroyed 8.8 million acres and killed 97 civilians and six firefighters, according to Cal Fire, the state fire agency.
Eighty-five of these civilians died in the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearly 19,000 homes and wiped out the Sierra foothill town of Paradise.
In 2017, California fires destroyed 10 million acres, killing 46 civilians and two firefighters. PG&E equipment started at least a dozen of these fires, according to Cal Fire. The Tubbs Fire in the wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties killed 22 people. Another 23 people perished in a massive mud slide in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, triggered by a sudden storm that pushed boulders down fire-denuded hills.
Despite dramatic television reports of wind-driven fires, the 2019 fire season in California has so far been one of the least destructive in several years. Some 5,000 fires have burned about 200,000 acres with no loss of life.
Cal Fire officials acknowledge they’ve been lucky but also point to measures taken early in the fire season that helped prevent or contain fires. These include brush clearance, fire-break construction and pre-fire engineering. Fire departments have been quicker to order evacuations and have put more fire crews and aircraft on standby.
The largest blaze in California this year was the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, fully contained on Nov. 6 after burning for 15 days. It began when a 230,000-volt transmission line failed near the point of origin just before PG&E was about to shut off the power.
The fire burnt more than 77,000 acres and tracked some of the area where the deadly Tubbs Fire struck two years ago. But while that fire claimed 22 lives and destroyed 5,400 homes, no one died this time and only 174 homes were lost.
Despite the improved results, northern Californians who have borne the brunt of the power shutdowns are unhappy with the blackouts. Most of their ire has been directed at PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January after acknowledging that its equipment caused the Camp Fire, the deadliest in the United States in the past hundred years.
PG&E has also acknowledged its equipment is “probably” to blame for starting at least nine wildland fires this year.
On Nov. 5 California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called William Johnson, chief executive officer of PG&E, to his office in Sacramento to discuss hardships caused by the power shutoffs. They closed schools and businesses for several days, and, according to the governor, prevented people from “refilling lifesaving prescriptions and power breathing machines.”
Johnson claimed after the meeting that the power shutdowns had been “well planned and executed,” but PG&E has acceded to Newsom’s demand to compensate those who were adversely affected by the blackouts after earlier saying it would not do so.
Newsom also pressed the PG&E executive to exit bankruptcy. He told Johnson he would consider a state takeover of PG&E if its bankruptcy is not resolved by next June 30, a problematic target date.
Led by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, 20 California mayors and county supervisors have sent a letter to Newsom and the California Public Utilities Commission recommending that PG&E be converted into a customer-owned utility.
A state official who asked not to be quoted said Newsom views state takeover of PG&E as a last resort. The official said the governor realizes that the state would inherit neglected transmission lines and face a multi-million dollar investment in modernizing the power grid.
No matter who owns the company, California will face severe challenges in future fire seasons because of climate change, according to Borenstein and other experts. These challenges extend to Southern California, which has hundreds of wildfires every year and is mostly served by Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Both SCE and San Diego Gas & Electric had power shutdowns this year in areas of high winds and low humidity. PG&E’s Johnson predicts such shutdowns will be regular events in years to come.
Speaking as record winds expanded the Kincade Fire, Michael Wara, who directs the climate and energy program at Stanford, told the New York Times: “The conditions we are observing right now are a function of climate change, and climate change will get worse.”
California is particularly vulnerable to global warming because it has a population of nearly 40 million and a shortage of affordable housing. As housing prices have soared in urban areas, Californians have moved into remote areas such as Paradise, with scant infrastructure and two-lane roads that quickly become gridlocked when a fire strikes.
Going forward, said Borenstein, California will need to reduce wildfire risk by “aggressive and thorough vegetation management, particularly around major transmission lines.” He also favors additional inspection of transmission towers and power poles, more monitoring of fires through remote cameras and artificial intelligence and better monitoring of power flows to detect faults on the line.
As California officials ponder the state’s future, Newsom has continued a war of words with President Donald Trump, who considers climate change a hoax. After inspecting fire-ravaged Paradise last year, the president told then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that California should “rake” its forest floor as he said Finland does.
President Sauli Niinisto of Finland later said he had explained the virtues of Finnish forest management to Trump but said nothing about “raking.” Finland’s enviable record on wildland fires is based mostly on a superior early warning system and frequent aerial inspection that enables firefighters to stop fires in their infancy.
Newsom says Trump’s denial of climate change “excuses him from the conversation” about fire-fighting practices. But Newsom also praised the Trump administration for approving additional emergency grants in record time.
“But what’s so insidious, and what’s so remarkable is that he [Trump] is doing everything right to respond to these disasters and everything wrong to address what’s happening to cause them,” Newsom said.
After years of drought, fires and floods, Californians accept the reality of climate change. A poll last year by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that 80 percent of Californians consider global warming a serious problem. By a lesser majority, so do most Americans. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that nearly six in ten Americans believe that climate change exists and is caused by human beings.
But there is no consensus, in California or nationally, on how to address this change. California’s contribution to the debate this year has been to show that power shutoffs to prevent wildfires cause more problems than they solve.
Marybel Batjer, an experienced troubleshooter for governors in California and her home state of Nevada, is Newsom’s handpicked choice to head the California Public Utilities Commission. At her first commission meeting in October she took aim at the blackout policy of PG&E and other utilities.
“The situation frankly has been unacceptable,” Batjer said. “The impacts to individual communities, to individual people, to the commerce of our state, to the safety of our people has been less than exemplary. This cannot be the new normal. We can’t accept it as the new normal — and we won’t.”
-- By Lou Cannon
Texas, California Among Hardest Hit by Wildfires in 2018
In 2018 Texas had the most wildfires of any state, 10,541 of them, and the sixth highest number of acres burned, at 569,811, according to data compiled by the Insurance Information Institute from the National Interagency Fire Center. California had the second highest number of wildfires, at 8,054, and the most acres burned, 1,823,153. Three other states also ranked among the Top 10 in both categories.