Views on the News: California wildfire power shutoffs
For the past month, strong winds, dry weather patterns and, according to many scientists, a warming climate have prompted red flag warnings across California. Since Oct. 23, the Kincade Fire has burned over 76,000 acres of land, destroying over 200 homes. In an effort to prevent the spread of current wildfires and prevent new ones from starting, Pacific Gas and Electric cut power to hundreds of thousands of homes, surprising many residents who felt they had not received sufficient warning. Should PG&E's power shut-offs be seen as an appropriate method of preventing future wildfires, or should the company take other steps to ensure their equipment does not pose a danger to the state? What other measures can California, or the federal government, take to prevent and contain wildfires in the future?
Vandita Malviya Wilson
There’s a list of fires burning in my current home state of California. And PG&E has decided to cut power to prevent further damage since the Santa Ana winds are in full force. This hasn’t done much good. And each time there is a new excuse of some mismanaged chain of communications. Those I know with means have been able to buy generators to keep the lights on; the less fortunate are SOL. Many residents said they didn’t know this was coming. How could anyone live in California and *not* see the Climate Change Apocalypse coming? While cutting power is a great idea, it only works for me if PG&E provides those residents with generators, or with hotel vouchers. But they’re not reimbursing those affected for food, lost productivity, medications, valuables, or anything. They’re in bankruptcy for fires from previous years, and yet they continue to raise my rates, blame climate change, poor management, sprawling suburbia, and any other excuse they can think of. We get it: it’s climate change. PG&E and the State of California should have been working together to get their lines and equipment upgraded, not finger pointing. This has been known for years, if not decades. I’m just wondering what exactly they’re going to do about it and when.
Vandita Malviya Wilson is an MBA candidate at IBS and is a staff writer for the Justice.
Trevor Filseth ’20
Pacific Gas and Electric was right to cut power off in the name of safety. With that said, the direct cause of the Kincade Fire is almost certainly PG&E itself; the fire started moments after a nearby tower experienced an outage, likely from a fallen power line. This is not surprising. Everyone in California understands that PG&E has put the profits of shareholders before the public interest for decades, and its utilities are astonishingly unsafe. The company’s failing infrastructure has been found responsible for hundreds of fires in recent years, including 2018’s Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives and destroyed 18,000 buildings. While important problems like climate change and water management must be addressed to keep the fires under control, PG&E needs fundamental change in how it operates; it must either be broken down into smaller, more accountable firms, or taken over by the state.
Trevor Filseth is a history major, a senior staff writer for the Justice and is a resident of Northern California.
Yvette Sei ’20
Electrical equipment has started six of the ten worst fires in California history, so yes in the short term PG&E cutting power in at risk areas is a responsible choice, but it can only be a temporary solution. The outages have already caused problems in themselves, putting people at risk in new ways by making communication more difficult, thus complicating evacuations. PG&E need to invest in improving their infrastructure immediately because this is not a feasible long term solution. Nor is the current California resistance to using controlled burns to mitigate the effects of wildfires. The current policy of allowing brush to build up does nothing but provide kindling for wild blazes. The southeastern U.S. has seen a great deal of success with fire management using the technique and it’s about time California started adapting it as well. The federal government should be helping California with the manpower and funds to implement these solutions and protect residents. This is currently a California problem but as climate change worsens fires will become an increasingly present problem for America as a whole and the federal government should see California as a valuable test case to learn about fire management and be prepared for when more if the US starts to burn.
Yvette Sei is a Politics and French double major and is an associate editor for the Justice.
Lily Schmidt-Swartz ’20
Given that fires have already broken out, I fear that other steps PG&E might take to ensure their equipment does not pose a danger would not prove timely enough to prevent the spread of the current fires. PG&E would first have to investigate why their equipment commonly causes and spreads fires and would only then be able to implement change. An investigation that PG&E undertakes could be a months-long process and the implementation of changes following an investigation could also be a months-long process. Moreover, the current fires might impair PG&E’s ability to safely conduct a thorough investigation or to implement all required changes. Unfortunately, the safest option seems to be power shutoffs. Assuming that PG&E is to remain the electricity provider for the state, the Newsom administration should implement regulatory reforms that force PG&E to undertake an investigation and to implement needed improvements. To the degree that such regulatory reforms prove costly — on PG&E and, by effect, on utility customers — California should seek resources from the federal government to somehow offset the costs.
Lily Schmidt-Swartz is a Politics and Near-Eastern and Judaic Studies double major and is the Interim Copy editor for the Justice.