Here in California, mid-August to late November used to be a peaceful time of year. It was a time when I would be reunited with my classmates, watch the leaves change colors and look forward to trick-or-treating on Halloween. But for the past two years, this time has been filled with face masks, air filters and air quality apps. This once exciting season has now turned deadly. I now consider this time of year “wildfire season.”
Just last year, California experienced its deadliest and most destructive wildfire recorded in history. It burned over 153,000 acres of land and destroyed over 18,000 structures, costing around $16.5 billion in repairs and property damage. An investigation by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company bears the majority of the responsibility, believing that a badly maintained steel hook that held up a voltage line caused the initial ignition, and a distribution line damaged by bullets caused the second ignition.
PG&E faced liabilities of up to $30 billion and started filing for bankruptcy a couple months after the fire. They are still currently working with the Cal Fire and U.S. District Judges to sort out all liabilities and payments.
PG&E received a tremendous amount of backlash from government officials and the public, causing intense scrutiny due to starting something so destructive. Many people, including myself, believed that they would try and fix this issue for the future.
However, the Kincade wildfire, which started on Oct. 23, 2019, has already burned 77,758 acres. This fire is yet again being blamed on PG&E because one of their transmission lines failed moments before the fire broke out, and another pipeline had fallen down, causing broken wires to be near two other fires in Contra Costa County, according to Newsweek. So what is PG&E doing wrong, and why hasn’t this issue been fixed?
In an effort to reduce the risk of more wildfires, PG&E has been doing “Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” in which they cut off electrical service to certain regions in California.
While these shutoffs vary by region, PG&E typically turns off the power for around 48 hours until the fire risk has passed. After the shutoffs, the company re-inspects the electrical lines to make sure they are safe to turn back on.
As a result of the power shutoffs, schools, government offices and businesses are being greatly impacted. Without utilities such as heaters, refrigerators and hospitals, many people are evacuating their homes due to the unhealthy living conditions.
This tactic is not practical and, in reality, is not the most effective way to reduce the risk of fire. In fact, it seems that PG&E is not looking out for the safety of the public, but instead is trying to save themselves from more financial debt and accusations. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom accused PG&E of “greed” and “complete dismissal of public safety” in a press conference.
PG&E has not acted in the best interests of California, as there are many different options that the company could have pursued to minimize wildfires other than leaving hundreds of people without electricity. According to Newsom, the company had plenty of time to anticipate the wildfires and could have developed a better plan. For example, the company could have focused on improving equipment or increasing inspections throughout the year. Instead, the company ended up picking the least expensive option, leaving thousands of paying customers with no electricity.
Specifically, in areas that are prone to fire, PG&E should be constantly updating the equipment to make sure that when the dry and windy season approaches, their equipment is ready to withstand the weather.
According to Business Insider, PG&E is currently making a promise to replace their poles with fire-resistant ones in fire-prone areas as well as invest $1.6 billion to trim trees near their wires. However, this is something that should have been happening a long time ago.
After state regulators started investigating the company, they found that PG&E collected $244 million more than they were authorized to collect in oil and gas revenue while spending millions less than they were supposed to on maintenance of their equipment. This made them “fall short of industry safety standards,” according to Business Insider. For example, the transmission line that caused Campfire was apparently 25 years too old by PG&E’s own standards, according to the New York Times.
However, PG&E is not solely responsible for the fires. The lack of funding for Smokey Bear, a U.S. Forest Service, also contributed to the incidents.
According to Popular Mechanics, 50% of Smokey Bear’s annual budget is aimed toward fighting the fires instead of the necessary prescribed burns, which are “natural” forest fires that reduce the amount of biomass, or brush, that causes major fires.
Because Smokey Bear spends a majority of their time and money focusing on putting out fires, they are left little to no time to do the prescribed burns.
Without the prescribed burns, the risk of wildfires increases drastically. As a society, we need to make sure that Smokey Bear is receiving enough funding from either government funding or tax payers to perform preventative maintenance on the forests.
If PG&E and California do not make adjustments soon, wildfires will continue to be a massive and recurring problem.