Here in California we’ve just received our first rain since last winter after another brutal round of massive forest fires. Our Mediterranean style climate cycles from a long dry hot period to a few short cool wet winter months. October is our most fire prone time of year. It’s hot, the earth is bone dry, the vegetation is brittle, and windstorms stir up fires like a giant hair dryer. Cyclical burns are part of the ecosystem here and are normal and necessary. It’s been like this for thousands of years. What hasn’t been here until recently are all the structures humans have built as well as a century of fire suppression that transformed small annual fires into enormous pent up conflagrations. We’re only beginning to negotiate how these two forces – nature vs. civilization – might ultimately reach some form of detente. It’s still early days.
I live in San Francisco, but have a modest home in what is now called the rural/urban interface up in Sonoma County fifty miles north of the city. If I walk in one direction from the house I’m in a village. If I walk in another I’m in vineyards and then forest. I was making my way through a long list of autumnal fix-it projects including putting the garden to bed for winter when the larger world pressed in on me. Again.
The authorities issued rolling alerts as fires spread from town to town. All of Sonoma County was affected by electricity cuts and the natural gas supply was turned off for the entire region. I carried on since my property was just outside the initial fire zone. I have multiple battery bricks to run LED lights and small devices. There’s a generous supply of propane cylinders out in the yard for cooking. The house is super insulated so heat and air conditioning aren’t required. I always have plenty of shelf stable food on hand. And 10,000 gallons of water are kept in tanks which are topped off by the solar well pump and rainwater catchment. I could continue to live comfortably without the usual services for a very long time. On a household level I’m solid.
But the winds shifted, the fires spread, and the danger increased. The air turned smokey, cell phone service died, sirens roared, and mandatory evacuation orders were declared for my area. It was time to retreat to the safety of the city. No amount of personal preparedness is enough when half the county is on fire.
When I returned a few days later the house and neighborhood were fine, although everything was covered in ash. I was lucky. Again.
I checked the freezer in the garage. Before I evacuated I placed three loose ices cubes in a plastic sandwich bag and left it on an open shelf inside the freezer. When I returned the ice cubes had retained their shape which was evidence that everything in the freezer had remained solidly frozen even without power. I went about my fix-it list pleased that life would go on for another year.
The next evening a crew from the power company arrived to turn the gas back on. They bled the gas lines of air and check that each appliance was relit and functioning properly. They had to do this to most of the homes in the county. Last year the power company declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of the previous set of forest fires in 2017. It was accused of neglecting the maintenance of electrical lines that may have sparked the fires. It’s an ongoing political and public relations drama that will play out for many years. Cutting the electricity and gas supply in an overly cautious manner is now part of the public relations pageantry.
A campaign was launched by the BRITE Coalition, a collective formed by the three dominant utility companies in California. Each video is full of dog whistles about public safety, climate change, renewable energy, and good paying jobs presented by a multi-ethnic cast of earnest people. It’s part of a strategy to shift liability away from power companies in future disasters.
I’ve had direct interactions with my local utility regarding tree trimming along high voltage lines on my property. There’s some truth to the accusation that the company is disinterested in maintenance. Trimming every tree near every wire in California is seriously expensive. Shareholders and ratepayers alike aren’t interested in carrying those costs. I paid $4,000 for this one little patch of tree removal in my front yard. Multiply that effort across the state and you get a very large number. None of my neighbors are willing to spend that kind of money dealing with the trees on their properties and they weren’t too pleased with the resulting barren landscape either. So who’s going to pay? The answer for decades has been… no one. The dominant culture has a strong preference for short term considerations rather than long term structural benefits.
Burying the electrical lines at the required scale is unimaginably expensive. There’s too much attenuated infrastructure spread out across far too much territory with too little revenue from scattered settlements. I honestly can’t say the utility company is wholly responsible for the fires. We’re talking about a population that placed itself squarely in harm’s way by building in locations that naturally want to burn and much of the construction is highly flammable. But “blame the victim” won’t fly even if it’s largely true. That’s not a message a fearful public wants to hear. From a legal perspective it’s really hard to sue a forest for damages. It wouldn’t look right for the governor to lash out at dry trees and wind for inflicting such pain and expense on a population huddled in homes that are effectively big paper boxes.
That takes us to the next piece of this huge puzzle. Firefighter’s keep pushing for more funding. This is a delicate subject so I’ll attempt to tread lightly here. Firefighters are heroes who put their lives on the line to protect the public. I understand that. (Cut to an image of a smoke stained man in a yellow coat carrying a little girl in pigtails from a burning building.) But there are structural problems that have nothing to do with that iconography.
My little semi rural village has a population of 1,700 people. “Downtown” is one block long. The old volunteer fire station that had served the village since 1951 was mothballed a decade ago. The village could have raised some local funds to upgrade the single fire engine and the existing building, but that’s not how these things are done.
The solution involved state and federal funds that covered the cost of a multi-million dollar new high tech facility. The new station is tricked out with a war room and all manner of electronic bells and whistles along with a fleet of shiny engines and boats. The county road adjacent to the station had to be widened in order to accommodate the new equipment. That too was paid for by the higher ups. The station is physically larger in square footage, volume, and land area than the retail strip in the village. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the protection this fire station offers me and my property. But this is extreme overkill for a village of this size. As impressive as the station is it still can’t prevent the entire town from burning if a big enough wall of flames comes howling over the hills.
So I do what I can. And the relevant authorities do what they can. At the end of the day this is a saga that will play out for the rest of the century. It’s a battle between insurance companies who will price risks, governments who will absorb long term obligations, and nature that will ultimately win this particular arm wrestling match. So I’ll roll the dice and hope for another lucky year.