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October 31, 2019

Time for California to Act Local

Action needed to save lives, homes – and the environment

California’s current climate is extremely hospitable to fire; it’s been that way for thousands of years. The iconic Sequoias actually require fire to release seeds from their cones.

Other California vegetation has also adapted to yearly dry and wet seasons as well as years-long droughts punctuated by torrential rains. The brush in California grows promiscuously when it rains. In the dry season it goes into a dry dormant state and turns brown. In the dormant state it is incredibly flammable. Fires happen in the fall, as they are now, because it is the end (driest part) of the dry season. In the winter of 2017, a long drought ended with heavy rainfall. In the winter of 2019 there was more heavy rain. The good news is that California’s reservoirs got refilled and its aquifers partially recharged. The bad news is that a lot of fuel for wildfire grew during those two years.

All of the above would have been true if California were unsettled or even if no humans existed. But we humans have made the situation much worse – at least for ourselves.  We’ve made three compounding huge mistakes: we’ve allowed power lines that run through flammable areas to become aged and vulnerable; we’ve built new communities where they’re most exposed to fires; and we’ve prematurely extinguished many small fires, which were nature’s way of preventing too much accumulation of fuel. The Camp Fire last year killed 88 people, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and cost an estimated $15 billion, according to the Center for Climates and Environmental Solutions. It was ignited by a spark from PG&E’s electric grid.

Once this year’s fires are out, it’s time for California to remedy past mistakes.

Upgrade the Damned Grid Now! PG&E, the state’s largest utility, has 81,000 miles of above ground distribution line. Some of that needs to be buried at $3 million or so per mile – ironically much cheaper to do after a fire when there are no structures in the way. Vegetation control is needed wherever overhead lines run through vulnerable areas. Worn out equipment and poles on both transmission and distribution need to be replaced. PG&E admits it is behind on vegetation control. The Public Utility Commission has not imposed any safety fines on them in the last few years – obviously part of the problem. PG&E is saying it will be ten years before they can make the grid safe enough so that they don’t have to shut off power every time the Santa Ana wind blows; somehow they didn’t recognize that problem earlier. Ten years is not acceptable!

But who is going to pay for a fast upgrade?

Californians already pay twice as much for electricity as people in neighboring states. The high rates are because of subsidies which state law requires the utility to pay for renewable power, conversion of homes to electric heat, and electric cars. Declare a moratorium on all subsidies paid by CA electric utilities until the grid is 100% upgraded. PG&E had revenue of $12.7 billion last year. Diverting the half of that now being used for subsides will make over $6 billion available for overdue maintenance without the need for a rate increase. Are you worried about climate change? Remember that the fires last year released as much carbon dioxide as is produced ALL of California’s electricity generation. Think of the exhaust from cars stuck in evacuation traffic jams. And think of all the diesel-powered generators used during blackouts. Mainly think of the people who died in the fires. California must act locally to protect the environment.

The state can bond for fire prevention with the proceeds to be repaid from NOT having to fight as many fires in future years. Insurers with exposure in the area might find it in their interest to help prevent future fires.

No NIMBY! There will be people whose property needs to be used for utility upgrades. They must be fairly compensated. There will be people who don’t like the sight of a new utility tower; they can’t be allowed to slow the reconstruction effort. Permitting for the projects should be fast, fair, and final. No years of appeals after the fact.

Don’t allow new structures in vulnerable areas. California requires solar panels on new housing construction but allows that construction to take place in areas at high risk of fire and without adequate vegetation clearance for fire-proofing. Each night on the news we see sad stories of people who rebuilt after one fire only to be burned out again; that’s as bad as the coastal homes that get rebuilt in the same vulnerable place after each hurricane. As the grid is upgraded, areas can be reopened for development.

Do allow precautionary and controllable burns. The excess fuel which accumulates without them is a danger. There will be less resistance to these necessary burns when there are not structures situated in harm’s way where they shouldn’t be.

Even after a crash effort – let’s say two years, there will still be wildfires in California; that’s the way the local climate is. But the frequency of fires, their impact on people and the environment, and the need for blackouts can all be greatly reduced – if California acts local.

See also California Shows How Not to Deal with Climate Change

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