Updated on Sept. 9, 2020.
With California wildfires, it seems that every year brings a new record for “more”: More acres, more frequent, more extreme, more deaths, more destruction.
So it figures that along with all the other misery that 2020 has piled on us, it’s shaping up as one of the worst fire seasons on record. By Labor Day, more than 2 million acres had burned, and the worst of the season is just getting started.
Residents may be hoping state officials resolve this quickly, but the truth is that the easy calls already have been made in handling California’s wildfire crisis. We’re clearing brush, spending more on firefighters, hastening insurance claims. We’ve tied the pay of utility executives to their companies’ safety records. To save lives — and liability costs — during red flag conditions, we’ve cut power to great swaths of the state.
We’ve spent billions, but it hasn’t been enough, and as Californians now face the realities of climate change, the only choices left are hard vs. hard: Ban wildland homebuilding. Bury power lines. Build microgrids. Break up the state’s largest utility and give its aging, spark-spewing equipment to taxpayers or customers or hedge funds or Warren Buffett. Burn nature before it burns you.
So what are our options at this point? Here are a few — with pros, cons and political odds.
Why don’t we ban homebuilding in areas of high risk?
The idea: One in three homes in California is in an area at risk for wildfire. Those residences, poised on the edge of, and sometimes in the midst of rugged, flammable wildlands, are increasingly in peril. And too often, only the rich can afford the kind of insurance that’s necessary to rebuild.
The pros: This is a zoning issue. If people can be prohibited from building in a flood plain, or warned about living on a fault line — why not write ordinances that either say no to building in dangerous places or require homeowners and businesses to sign a waiver absolving authorities from the need to provide fire protection to them?
The cons: Property rights are big in American jurisprudence. People want to build where they choose and get irritated when the state steps on local control. Sometimes financial necessity forces people to homes in rural places. And build-at-your-own-risk isn’t the mantra of a society that believes public safety is part of a government’s role.
The odds: Imagine a local elected official telling a property developer — who may or may not donate to political campaigns — that we will no longer make room on forested hills for new luxury subdivisions, with their alluring property tax potential. Not gonna happen.
In any case, Gov. Gavin Newsom has rejected such a building ban, telling the Associated Press last year, “There’s something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and pioneering spirit.” Odds are zip.
Why don’t we stage more controlled burns?
The idea: Fighting fire with fire has been going on in California since before European settlement. If carefully planned and monitored, these small purpose-set fires can quickly remove dangerous fuels and dead trees.
The pros: Clearing trees and brush is a critical component of California’s approach to fire mitigation, and using strategically set fires to do that is an inexpensive alternative to tree cutting: Sending crews in to physically remove trees can cost as much as $1,400 an acre. Controlled burns are a relative bargain, coming in at about $150 an acre. Small, low-intensity burns are ultimately healthy for forests. And it’s more efficient than that raking-the-forest-like-Finland idea …
The cons: Even closely monitored burns discharge polluting and unhealthful smoke. It’s not uncommon for a prescribed burn that took two years to plan to be scrubbed because residents in a nearby town complained. Also the flames can be dangerous and it’s a bit jarring to see firefighters set fires.
The odds: Very good, an 8. Under a plan agreed to in August, the state and the U.S. Forest Service set a goal to thin 1 million acres a year by 2025, which would roughly double the current rate. Controlled burns would be a part of that work. Everyone likes the idea of controlled burns, in theory. But we may have to get used to them as a norm.
Why don’t we throw more people and equipment at fires?
The idea: We are Americans. More is better. Why can’t we have everything?
The pros: Fire folks like to talk about “tools in the toolbox.” Who doesn’t want the biggest toolbox with the latest tools to tackle a dangerous and unpredictable job? Why use puny WWII-era prop planes when you can call up a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet patrolling the sky like a pterodactyl, dousing flames with nearly 19,000 gallons of retardant? Even when machines are grounded by wind, it’s reassuring to have them near.
The cons: Some wildfires are predictable, inviting crews to swarm over them, all-but stamping them out with their boots. Those polite fires don’t tend to be California fires. The infernos menacing Northern and Southern California are driven by powerful winds, typical for this time of year. Putting resources in front of those flames is dangerous and not always effective: Aircraft and machines and people in uniform may not stop a wind-driven fire until winds die down or rain falls. And paying for fleets of tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and crews to sit around waiting for the weather to change is breathtakingly expensive.
The odds: Pretty good. Maybe 7 out of 10. Already, California boasts one of the largest firefighting air forces in the world, featuring fire detection cameras, year-round fire engines, bulldozers, S-2T air tankers and Black Hawks for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain. Cal Fire is also retrofitting seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes to dump as much as 4,000 gallons of fame retardant. As noted, fire folks like a well-stocked toolbox and usually, Cal Fire gets what Cal Fire wants.
Why don't we deal with this crisis at its source?
The idea: These are not your father’s wildfires. California was built to burn, but that natural propensity has been amplified by climate change. Greenhouse gases — the planet-warming emissions that come largely from the burning of fossil fuels — declined during the pandemic but already are climbing back up. Earth has warmed nearly 2°F since pre-industrial times, and 2016 to 2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record. According to a United Nations report, emissions must drop 7.6 percent each year over the next decade to meet the global goal (2.7°F above pre-industrial levels) and avoid the worst-possible warming scenarios, which includes intensifying wildfires.
The pros: Newsom has used the fires as a platform for highlighting the nexus between a warming climate and the frequency and intensity of burning. “I have no patience for climate change deniers,” he said, noting an ongoing drought, this summer’s historic heat and millions of dead trees are “the reality on the ground.”
The cons: Reducing greenhouse gas pollution is a far bigger job than California alone can afford to bankroll. And Americans, even those who don’t deny the threat, aren’t in political agreement about the change, sacrifice and massive expense required by the solutions.
The odds: Responding to climate change is an expressed priority for Newsom, who proposed billions of dollars in “climate resiliency” projects to clear forests, fireproof homes and assist rural communities. Those good intentions ran into the coronavirus buzzsaw that destroyed the state’s budget surplus. So it’s 9 in 10 odds that the status quo will continue. And let’s be real: The ability of one state to solve global climate change is limited. Even California doesn’t have that much climate control. Or hubris.
Why don’t we bury all the powerlines?
The idea: Some of the most catastrophic wildfires in recent years have been sparked by electrical equipment. PG&E, in particular, has been bankrupted by liability for apocalyptic fires caused by aging wires and towers. Its solution? Apocalyptic blackouts. So why not put the fire hazard underground?
The pros: It would be safer. And it’s not unheard of. Since 2009, Australia has required undergrounding of new lines.
The cons: It’s incredibly slow. PG&E alone has some 81,000 miles of overhead lines. Undergrounding makes damaged lines hard to access, and leaves them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. They’re just one source of risk among many. And it’s reallllly expensive. PG&E puts the price at about $2.3 million a mile on average compared with $800,000 per mile for building new overhead lines.
The odds: On a scale of 1-10? Maybe a 3, though the cost-benefit improves with every utility-sparked wildfire. But utility poles have a constituency, too, as California rolls out the 5-G digital infrastructure needed for high-speed internet and self-driving cars.
Why don’t we break up PG&E?
The idea: An inordinate number of catastrophic wildfires have been traced to Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers most of Northern California, from big cities to remote wildlands. One idea is to transition California’s largest investor-owned utility into one public utility or break it up into a bunch of municipal utilities.
The pros: PG&E is a bankrupt corporation that has been found guilty of six federal felonies, not to mention a history of water contamination, pipeline explosions and electrical fires that are killing people. It knew for years that aging equipment was at risk of sparking wildfires. And it was reported that former CEO Bill Johnson stood to make millions once the company’s stock rebounds after bankruptcy. So yes, PG&E’s track record makes it easy to rally public support for a government takeover.
The cons: Breaking up PG&E may be more costly for consumers and leaves questions about how to serve rural communities, such as the Sierra foothills, where it is more expensive to maintain the electric grid. Plus, those wooded areas are at greater risk for wildfires, no matter whose wire the spark comes from.
The odds: Two in 10. San Francisco, San Jose and other cities are exploring the possibility of a customer-owned cooperative, but local annexation of PG&E territory has been litigious and costly for cities that have tried it.
And even though Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened a state takeover, he ultimately signed off on PG&E’s restructuring plan. In exchange, he got a pledge from the utility to improve grid safety, compensate victims and revamp its board of directors. The state also got more teeth. Under the agreement, PG&E could be sold if the company is unable to succeed or has its license revoked by state regulators for failing to meet safety improvements.
Why don’t we make utilities repay us for blackouts?
The idea: It happened in 2019 and it could happen again. Sensing no political downside, Newsom demanded PG&E offer rebates — $100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses — to compensate people for a widespread public safety power shutdown on Oct. 9, 2019. As a result, the company agreed to a one-time reimbursement.
The pros: Other businesses offer your money back if customers don’t get service. Californians use less electricity than customers in other states, on average, but their rates are relatively high. And there’s no harm for politicians in demanding refunds from, say, a company like PG&E, which is both unpopular and bankrupt.
The cons: PG&E’s late 2019 blackouts hit some 2 million households while the utility remained in bankruptcy and power shutoffs have since become commonplace during dry, windy conditions. In any case, any rebate would be a mere gesture compared to what Californians are about to pay for electricity. So far, the average PG&E customer stands to pay an extra $30 a month even before all the details of bankruptcy are worked out.
The odds: Five in 10 of some policy going forward. Newsom scored one clawback, but customers are getting used to blackouts, which might mean less outrage.
Why don’t we move to microgrids?
The idea: If the big utilities are causing the fires, and creating the untenable public safety blackouts that are impacting millions of Californians, why not pull the plug on for-profit power companies?
The pros: A microgrid is a locally controlled power system that can be connected to or “disconnected” from the electrical grid. The systems produce, store and distribute power on a small scale and offer precisely what’s needed in times of chaos: resiliency. A tiny grid can provide power to operate critical infrastructure during emergencies, such as hospitals and fire stations.
The cons: As the technology stands right now, microgrids, as the name implies, are not applicable for large scale deployment, although the desert community of Borrego Springs hums along using one. There are still some technological barriers to be overcome.
The odds: Moving en masse to a system of microgrids is a dream for some, but still a distant one. The state is studying the issue. And legislators are not ones to let a crisis go to waste. Expect even more attention to this in Sacramento. Odds are 6 out of 10.
Why don’t we make all utilities public?
The idea: California is home to a mix of public and investor-owned utilities, but the investor-owned ones (think PG&E) have a fiduciary duty to shareholders that complicates spending on public safety. So let the government run the grid.
The pros: The public, not shareholders or investors, would set rates through a governing body or a board and there would be clear accountability to improve safety and maintain equipment. Public utilities operate their own generation facilities or purchase power through contracts. And they would have access to public financing. No more worrying about shareholder returns.
The cons: Turning private corporations into government-run providers would be difficult, pricey — and a gamble. The public would have to pony up billions just to acquire all private providers, including the biggest three: Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison. Then the public is left holding the bag if there are problems, such as deadly wildfires. And publicly owned utilities aren’t necessarily without controversy. Consider the history of corruption at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers, and whose power lines appear to have helped spark the Getty Fire.
The odds: One in 10. Newsom talked of a state takeover of PG&E but ultimately signed off on a reorganization plan.
Why don't we force utilities to better target blackouts?
The idea: Public safety power shut-offs, or de-energization, have been used in California since 2013, mainly by San Diego Gas and Electric during high fire danger to reduce the risk of electrical fires.
The pros: SDG&E hardened its system after a 2007 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. It now operates a “networked” grid of major transmission lines, smaller distribution lines and circuits that allows distribution from different paths. The company also has invested in “reclosers,” which are pole-mounted circuit breakers that allow authorities to more surgically pinpoint trouble on a line and shut off power to smaller areas. The utility’s blackouts have affected as many as 23,000 households, and as few as one or two customers.
The cons: PG&E can’t be so precise. It serves 70,000 square miles of California, and runs a “radial” system, meaning power lines stretch over long distances. PG&E serves 16 million customers compared to 3.6 million for SDG&E over 4,100 square miles.
The odds: Eight in 10, but it’ll be a work in progress. According to PG&E’s wildfire mitigation plan, it pledged to work on finding ways to reduce the impact of blackouts ahead of this year’s wildfire season. So far, the utility has cut power to millions of people in dozens of counties several times in October.
Why don’t we beef up California’s alert system?
The idea: Alerting the public can be the difference between life and death. But too often, emergency notifications come too late. During the 2019 Camp Fire, a large number of residents didn’t receive an alert or warning. At the time, the most effective system came from neighbors knocking on doors and word of mouth. California has to do better. With 85 lives lost, that blaze is now the state’s deadliest.
The pros: For the first time, the state has issued basic guidelines for when and how to issue public alerts, suggestions for what information to include in a message, and where to distribute those warnings. The 83-page report released in March by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommends alerting communities through as many platforms as possible, from wireless emergency alerts, traditional landlines and TV and radio to door-to-door notification, loudspeakers and sirens. Cal Fire also has an alert app that lets users receive customized texts and push notifications about wildfires reported within a chosen ZIP code or 30 miles of a phone’s location. State officials now say “all of the above” is probably the best way to keep the public informed.
The cons: “All of the above” is still pretty tech heavy, and recent fires and blackouts have shown that cell phones can be rendered useless in a worst-case scenario. Tech access isn’t equal in all parts of California. While most of the 58 counties have access to a new federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, 16 counties are not signed up. And despite those warning guidelines from CalOES, the state is still working on uniform terms so various state and local government agencies understand each other in an emergency.
The odds: Six in 10, at least in the short term. Progress is being made but emergency communications still need work.
Why don’t we bring back landlines?
The idea: Cell phones aren’t reliable during emergencies and PG&E blackouts have already resulted in a loss of cell phone service, so let’s go analog. California should bring back landlines.
The pros: Landlines are time-tested, typically underground and can be operated with minimal power.
The cons: They aren’t what they used to be. Modern landlines frequently operate on Voice over Internet Protocol, which sends calls over the internet, not a traditional phone line. If the power’s out, then a house phone might not work. Nor are companies required to offer backup power for VOIP lines. This is already becoming an issue as blackouts affect the state. Another problem? Folks with landlines often use cordless phones, which require electricity.
The odds: Two out of 10. In 2017, more than half of U.S. households relied on cell phones alone. As phone companies increasingly lean on the internet to provide service, landlines figure less and less into California’s emergency back-up plan.
Why don’t we adopt more of Australia’s firefighting policies?
The idea: California and Australia have a similar climate, many of the same plants and trees, recent withering drought and ferocious wildfires. We train crews together and fight each other’s fires. And, as in California’s bitter experience, responsibility for many of Australia’s deadliest fires can be laid at the feet of power companies. Yet officials Down Under sometimes seem to have a better handle on wildfire issues, with policies based on the principle of shared responsibility. The Aussies have been burying new utility lines for more than 20 years, but they also teach residents to protect and defend their homes.
The pros: Many Australian states have a “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy. Residents receive a lot of well-presented information in community forums and in radio and television reminders about how to fireproof their homes, minimize damage and save lives if they stay. That preparation can reduce panic and deaths. In addition, the country’s research institutions regularly spit out computer programs and other tools to assist fire commanders, and those are incorporated into policy. A report following a series of Australian fires in 2009 that killed 173 people led to a new category of threat and changes in evacuation protocols.
The cons: Although California authorities are ramping up efforts to educate homeowners about mitigating fire danger on their own properties, public outrage flares if residents believe that a taxpayer-funded agency failed to come to their rescue. In addition, although California is brimming with world-class research institutions and fire scientists regularly suggest actions to keep people and property safe, policy decisions rest with the Legislature and governor in a highly politicized environment. Australia’s state and federal Parliaments are also subject to political winds, but California’s fire-related lawmaking is famously thorny and fraught with disagreement among parties with deep economic interests at stake.
The odds: A toss-up. Maybe 5 out of 10. California authorities have been loath to adopt a tough-love stance against homeowners who don’t leave as a raging fire approaches; litigiousness and tangled notions of liability and responsibility can complicate the issue.
For an even deeper look at the intersection of climate change, utilities and California fire season, explore CalMatters’ updated wildfire explainer here.