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Sun, 17 Nov 2019 11:53 GMT

California’s Burning - The Fire This Time and Possibly, Forever After

Environment

Tony Broadbent

Tue, 05 Nov 2019 11:19 GMT

California is on fire and has been for a week and more with little or no choice, now, seemingly, but for us all to learn to live and/or die with it.  

The “Golden State”, as it’s long been called, once again, turned into a “tinderbox” by warm temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds. With thousands of firefighters, in northern and southern California, still battling to control fast-moving wildfires.  

Fires that forced mass evacuations in the Los Angeles hills, as well as in a large part of Sonoma, in the heart of wine country, north of San Francisco; Governor Gavin Newsom, very soon after, declaring “a state of emergency” for both Los Angeles and Sonoma counties.  

Authorities, only now, lifting evacuation orders in Los Angeles, where firefighters have contained around 50% of the ‘Maria’ fire, but only partly lifting them in Sonoma, where as of Sunday, 3rd November, the 121-square-mile ‘Kincade’ fire is still just three-quarters contained.  

California has long been prone to fires come ‘Fall’ season when extremely strong winds stoke blazes in under-brush and forests parched from long, hot summers. But climate change has contributed to making the state warmer and drier, for longer periods, providing more and more fuel for fires. Most every climate researcher worth his or her salt warning that the wildfires will only get bigger, more destructive, and more frequent in an increasingly hotter and drier California. 

The ten most destructive fires in the state’s history have all occurred since 1990, seven of them in the last four years; the ‘Camp Fire’, the deadliest and the most expensive natural disaster in the world, killed 85 people in northern California last year.  

Raging fire then, the new normal for life in California: a state large enough to contain all 6,000-plus islands of the British Isles, let alone all of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And, at last look, the 5th largest economy in the world. 

Hopefully, though, not ‘the’ last look, for if one of the latest methods of dealing with California’s annual fire season is left unchecked, it’ll be more than land and houses and people fast going to hell in a handcart, it’ll be the state itself.  

As evidenced by what also occurred in Northern California, this past week, when the largest utility in the state, Pacific Gas & Electric, deliberately cut power to more than a million people in a series of ‘Public Safety Power Shutoffs’ (PSPS). Pre-emptively shutting down power lines on days predicted to have extreme wind events in an effort to prevent further death and destruction. The ‘public’ utility company deciding; entirely on a criteria of its own making; to take extreme action in light of the fact that its ill-maintained power lines; in the main, strung across aging wooden power poles; have all too often been determined as the source of the spark that’s set alight bone-dry foliage and undergrowth.  

Shutting down the power now, seemingly not only PG&E's primary defence to the spread of wildfire, but also to reduce liability for their equipment being deemed the cause of a deadly fire, as happened in 2017, 2018, and again, now, in the fire, this time, 2019. 

The catastrophic fires of 2017 and 2018 having already propelled PG&E into bankruptcy; with the utility-company’s existing ‘fire liabilities’ calculated at close to $30 billion. Yet, last week’s widespread power outages, alone, while no doubt saving homes and lives, have cost the state untold billions, as it meant that many businesses and industries couldn't operate, schools couldn't open, and petrol stations were closed. Resulting in hard knock-on effects for local public transport and commuters alike. The Napa Valley wine and tourist industries severely hit. And countless small businesses, across the state, driven to the very edge by days and days without power or customers. With no one knowing when the end might be in sight.

All of it vividly illustrating how the costs of failing to address climate change extend much wider than just property lost to the flames. Everyone, now, waking up to the new reality: that life in California can never again be as in the mythic, balmy and carefree days of yore.

I’ve experienced any number power blackouts on both sides of ‘the pond’. Perhaps the most memorable those that occurred in response to industrial action by British coal miners back in the good old, bad-old days of the early 1970s, when most all of the UK’s electricity was produced by coal burning power stations. When a grim-faced Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath; his signature 100-watt smile, for once, severely dimmed; introduced a number of measures designed to reduce electricity consumption so as to conserve coal stocks. Perhaps, his government’s most infamous action: ‘The Three-Day Week Order’ that limited commercial users of electricity to three pre-specified consecutive days' consumption each week.  

The only exemptions, those services deemed essential: e.g. hospitals, supermarkets, and “Yes, dear, Alice,” newspaper printing presses. (“You do remember daily printed newspapers don’t you?”). Even television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10.30 pm and most pubs didn’t even bother to open. A time of flickering candles and oil lamps and all very sobering, but all so very British and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and all that as everyone endeavoured to muddle through another ‘Winter of Discontent’, together. 

But this last spate of power shut-offs, here, in the San Francisco Bay Area feels very different. Not, this time, the result of an ongoing political dispute over fair wages, but ordained on high and by design by the power company, PG&E, itself, with little or no consultation with either state or local government. And with no criteria, other than of their own devising, for the extent or duration of the PSPS and nothing but a tersely worded warning to most all of their California customers that shut offs were very soon going to occur because of expected extreme weather conditions. 

A large swathe of the Bay Area, then kept even further in the dark for days on end, when entire strings of cell towers lost power and thousands and thousands of people were unable to make or receive mobile calls, check emails, get on-line, get news updates or, most distressingly, get notice of any further impending evacuation orders. And this in one of the most technologically advanced areas of the world: the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley, Apple, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb.  

Power outages are going to happen again. And if not wholly a utility company’s executive-driven, man-made strategy to prevent fires or reduce financial liability, there will be storms, fires, and earthquakes that create large and long-term outages.  

All of which add up to “the new normal”. 

Cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, in her 2016 book, ‘The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future’ explained why it is that the United States leads the developed world in power outages due to the unreliability of its ‘grid’; the complex nationwide system of making and delivering electricity. Her prediction, all too prescient in the light of the devastating California fires of 2017, 2018 and, now, 2019: “In the United States today…the greatest threat to the security and reliability of our electrical infrastructure is foliage.” 

And nothing left that can possibly dispute her vision of California and the rest of America’s future. Especially in light of the hundreds of thousands of acres of scorched and smouldering earth, and the land still burning. 

Late last week, Governor Gavin Newsom said that the state might well take over Pacific Gas & Electric if matters concerning the power grid aren’t quickly improved upon and updated. And maybe the state will and maybe it won’t. As with all measures that, for better or worse, are intended to take us into the future, that’s ultimately up to the voters and whether they’ve been moved enough by this catalogue of calamitous extreme weather events to ensure that California will still be a place people will want to continue to live and work in and call home. 

But as one commentator so tellingly framed this past week’s events: “Ordinary life has forever vanished in fire-ravaged California.”  

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.


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