PG&E’s Power Shutoffs Can’t Save California From Wildfire Hell

If the conditions align, PG&E initiates what it calls public safety power shutoffs, and they’re tortured decisions. “It is sort of unprecedented for such a large utility doing this preemptively,” says Swain. “They are probably an unfortunately necessary stopgap fire-prevention measure right now, but they come with serious risks as well.”

A utility like PG&E is mandated to provide power, because doing so isn’t just a matter of modern conveniences—it can be a matter of life and death. That’s especially true in the Golden State’s mountain towns that are most at risk of catastrophic wildfire, many of which are retirement communities. The elderly may rely more heavily on medical appliances and be more vulnerable to heatstroke without air conditioning. By preemptively cutting off power, you’re also potentially cutting off communication—if the power goes out and a wildfire starts, and TVs and internet routers don’t work, people could be at risk. Electric water pumps too would go offline, potentially hampering firefighting efforts.

In preparation for the shutoffs, PG&E recommends stocking up on food and water and flashlights, but that might be difficult for people with fixed incomes and limited mobility. You’ve got to think of the little things, too, like opening your garage before a blackout in case a wildfire does come and you need to flee and your opener is kaput. If you’ve got a generator, great; but ironically enough, more generators humming along outdoors means more ways to spark the fires PG&E is trying to prevent.

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The hard truth is that California is built to burn. For decades, the state has stamped out wildfires instead of letting them burn naturally, causing fuel to accumulate. And Californians can’t help but keep building homes right up against wildlands, often in wind-funneling valleys, putting themselves literally in the line of fire.

PG&E bears outsize responsibility for this mess; its dismal safety record includes 17 major wildfires in 2017 alone. Miles upon miles of electrical lines criss-cross the landscape, providing ample opportunity for ignition. A solution might be to bury the lines, but that’s expensive and often not feasible in rocky regions. In an ideal world, all of these mountain towns would operate on their own self-contained, solar-powered microgrids, but that too is wildly expensive.

And really, fires will always have reasons to start—a firework here, an overheated car or cigarette ember there. In these times of climate change, drier brush means Californians must live with the constant anxiety that it’s not a matter of if the next Camp Fire will strike, but when and where.

“Even if you prevent 90 percent of wildfire ignitions, the remaining fires could be just as bad or even worse,” notes UCLA’s Swain. “That still leaves us with the problem that the character and intensity of wildfires are changing. Even if we see fewer of them, we’ll still have catastrophic fires.”

Add catastrophic power outages to the list. All is not well out west.

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