PD Editorial: California can do more to prevent wildfires

With all due respect to T.S. Eliot, October is looking like the cruelest month.

California has careened from crisis to crisis all month. A series of power outages orchestrated by utility companies has left millions of residents across the state in the dark for days at a time. The putative purpose is to ensure that power lines and other utility equipment didn't spark any more catastrophic wildfires.

Yet at least 10 fires are presently burning, with the biggest one here in Sonoma County, where 57 have burned and nearly 200,000 people were evacuated over the weekend.

It's likely to be months before investigators determine what caused all those fires, but utility companies already are facing scrutiny.

In at least three instances, including the 74,000-acre Kincade fire, PG&E reported equipment malfunctions around the time that fires were reported.

Southern California Edison also told the California Public Utilities Commission that its system was “impacted” on Oct. 10 when a fire started on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles. Seventeen homes were destroyed and two people were killed.

Intentional power outages, deadly fires, mass evacuations - is it any wonder Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency?

Newsom has spent considerable time here over the past week, inspecting fire damage, visiting first responders and consoling victms. People applauded Sunday when he arrived at an evacuation center in Petaluma, but the governor and his fellow Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, still haven't done enough to protect California from climate-related disasters.

As climate scientists have predicted, wildland fires are getting more frequent and more intense. Five of California's 20 deadliest wildfires occurred in the past two years, and 10 of the 20 most destructive, as measured by the number of structures destroyed, occurred in the past 10 years. Many of those fires have been attributed to power lines, and nearly all of them occurred during the fall months when warm, dry winds are common.

In response, the state modernized its fleet of firefighting aircraft and started prepositioning crews in high-risk areas. After the North Bay fires two years ago, lawmakers directed insurers to provide more comprehensive coverage in designated disaster areas. Those measures address problems caused by wildland fires.

For now, the primary strategy for preventing fires seems to be the “public safety power shutoffs” implemented by PG&E and other utilities when the weather gets hot and windy. So far, they have been frequent, costly and disruptive. There's reason to fear they won't be effective - unless they become even more frequent, costly and disruptive.

PG&E, which serves most of Northern and Central California, says the grid upgrades required to surgically target preemptive outages will take 10 years. California can't wait that long.

The state is a global leader in developing solar and wind and other alternative sources of energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's time to bring the same commitment to keeping the lights on, so wildfires don't offset emission savings, leaving California with a bleak, dark future.

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