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A look at the 2019 California fire season                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Nov/14/2019 : Posted by: Mel

Related Category: People, Politics & Gov, Society,

If you are a California resident, 2019 has been one heck of a year. The homeless populations of San Francisco and Los Angeles have repeatedly made the national news. We can no longer get plastic straws with our cancer causing soda. But more prominent in our minds is the 2019 fire season.

Any of us who have lived here a while have seen these fires, and on occasion been personally impacted. It is easy to believe that these late summer and into fall winds are named for the Mexican General and his army of 1836. In truth, the winds are named after the Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County. The Santa Ana Canyon is one of the places where the dry desert air moves from east to west picking up speed in the canyon. For any of you who have built a campfire by first holding some barely burning tinder and blowing on it, you know what wind can do to fire when ample fuel is available.

California has some pretty exciting geography. Everyone wants a canyon or a mountain in their backyard. What’s not to enjoy; drinking your morning coffee and looking out the window at a spectacular view. As our population has grown, more and more of our housing and community developments have escaped the boredom of the big basins to be interlaced with the grandeur of the foothills and mountains. Unfortunately, this has also meant that communities are interlaced with back country hills that are ready to burn.

Since October 1 of 2019 there have been 68 fires across the state reported on the Cal-Fire website. 13 of those fires having exceeded 500 acres in size and damage. We seldom get to hear what started a fire. The fires that start in the most remote area and move toward are probably lightening. Surprisingly, most fires appear to start near where human activity is. Hot exhaust from a muffler touching grass on a road shoulder, low flying cigarette butt, homeless encampments, embers from a grill, sparks from a power tool and sparks from electrical power lines are all common causes of fires that quickly grow out of control.

A number of fires in 2017 and 2018 have been directly attributed to sparks from powerline or related equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) as well as Southern California Edison (SoCal Ed). Specifically, PG&E is facing liabilities from 2017 & 218 fires that could exceed $30 billion from a combined group of 3800 plaintiffs. For anyone who has watched TV, you know that there are large pools of attorneys who want to help you with your claim for band HIV drugs, asbestos exposure, faulty airbags, degrading hip replacements, failing hernia mesh, ovarian cancer from baby powder…the list goes on and on.

We have become a very litigious society. We love to go after that big institutional or corporate deep pocket….they can afford it…right. Just to be clear, I am not a fan of the impersonal corporation, but I also know that there is really no such thing as a business tax or legal settlement. These are merely expenses and get passed on to the only real tax payer in the country, the consumer at the bottom of the pyramid. Even that mythical thing called a “public utility” that is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) never really absorbs a big loss. For the portion of the fire litigation that exceeded their insurance, PG&E whet to the CPUC and got a rate increase to cover the potential loss. Without this, they would turn the switch off, lock the doors and go home leaving us all in the dark.

Years ago I had a summer internship with the Airforce and NASA during the beginning of the Space Shuttle program. I still remember the NASA marketing guy announcing to the auditorium that “we may make every mistake in the book, but we’ll make each of them only once.” In hindsight, that was a pretty ominous message. Corporate America has a very similar mindset. SoCal Ed and PG&E under the guidance of their many, many lawyers have chosen to reduce their risk by shutting down sections of the power transmission grid when wind speeds are predicted to put them at risk. 21st Century America is all about risk and risk mitigation. Between the lawyers and the statisticians at the insurance companies, we really don’t stand a chance.

This year many communities saw their power shut off as a pre-emptive action with the impending Santa Ana winds. Most of us can get by without electric lights. If we keep the refrigerator closed, a day or two without power will have limited wastage, but every system is now interrelated and co-dependent. Without electricity, we have no pumps for our community fresh water system, telephone networks are down, the list goes on and on.
I work in the Information Technology realm where nearly half of my time is spent addressing “risk mitigation” so I understand the concept. With 68 fires across the state in October, I am really hard pressed to believe that shutting down sections of our power grid actually reduced our fire exposure. Maybe it is time for the next technology step.

I grew up in the communities just west of Portland Oregon. In the 1950’s and 60’s that part of the country saw a lot of growth. To keep up, the power grid was rapidly expanded using the most readily available material, timber. I was a small child when the winds came through at +100 miles per hour for most of Columbus Day 1962. Later, my father drove us around showing how the Columbus Day storm toppled thousands of wooden transmission towers. Upon rebuilding, the next generation of technology was used erecting metal towers as the modern replacement. Any replacement technology we look at locally will be extremely expensive and clearly a bill none of us want to pay.

If you have seen the video of how the Getty fire started, the lawyers are the only winners. High winds caused a branch from a tree to break and short across nearby powerlines. Should the powerlines have been shut down? Who owns the tree and should they be liable because a branch was weak enough to break off in moderate to high winds? If there is a law suit here, will the reaction be that everyone with a tree over 18 feet tall cuts it down?

There are those who report that the reason for our fires being more and more damaging is not because our communities are encroaching in back country, it’s because of “global warming.” I have no problem believing that the world is warmer on average now than 100 years ago and that potentially means more dry fuel for fires. Nevertheless, I struggle to believe that all the blame goes to my cars tail pipe and cow farts. The last ice age ended roughly 12,000 years ago and the world has been gradually warming ever since. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that our planet has gone through numerous warming and cooling cycles. It is entirely reasonable to believe that human behavior had accelerated this warming slightly, but you can’t blame my driving habits for 12,000 years of warming. Maybe the Governor’s car is older than mine.

If there is a conclusion here, it is that there is no absolute answer. We are a very litigious society and that creates a comparable reaction from the PG&E and SoCal Ed, they start shutting off the grid at the least hint of high winds. With the grid shut down, many communities not in the direct path of fires still experienced hardship. It would be interesting to compare the fire number from 2018 to 2019 and learn if proactively shutting of sections of the grid actually reduced the number of fires and total property damage. There is no doubt that the power shut offs created a lot of unexpected hardship.

Interesting, my friends on the east coast used to question my living in California under the premise that there would eventually be a big earth quake and we would fall into the sea. Now they just tell me we will be wiped off the planet by fire. At least I get to hear a different insult.

There was a time when we would start sweeping up the mess after a fire and just call it “an act of God.” Oh wait, the attorneys for an Atheists group will argue we can’t use that excuse.

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Les Brown
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