The New Normal

This week, Northern California had its first significant rain and our fire season ended. (Unfortunately, as I write this, there is a big fire burning in Southern California near Santa Barbara.) For the last several years, fire season has lasted longer than it once did, and the fires have been more ferocious. Californians are beginning to acknowledge that this is the new normal.

Here in Sonoma County — north of San Francisco — we’re still recovering from the mammoth Kincade fire, which started on October 23rd and was fully contained on November 6, 2019. It burned 77,758 acres and destroyed 374 buildings.  Amazingly, no one was killed; probably because the County Sheriff ordered a massive evacuation and our local utility company turned off almost all the county’s electricity.  (Once the evacuation order was lifted, it took several days for power to be restored.)

Most of the locals see the Kincade fire as a consequence of three factors: global climate change, reckless building in the “wildland-urban-interface” (WUI), and infrastructure decay.  Climate change has caused our summers to become much drier and the fall winds to be more intense.  (During the Kincade fire there were 96 mile-per-hour winds.)  For a variety of reasons, California’s suburbs have pushed into the wildland-urban-interface and shortsighted city planners have let developers build in locations there were once thought to be too dangerous because of the possibility of wildfires.  Finally, our energy infrastructure has not been properly maintained by the primary Northern California provider, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E); now, when the winds kick up, we are at risk because of aging transmission lines and transformers.  (Belatedly, PG&E acknowledged this; early in the course of the Kincade fire, the utility shut off all electric service in the projected path of the firestorm — most of west Sonoma County.)

The question Californians now face is how to adapt to the new normal.  One option would be to relocate, but that would likely mean a move out of state because all parts of California are now threatened by wildfires.  (Indeed, most of the western states have this problem.)  And, of course, moving to another state means moving to an area that is subjected to another consequence of climate change, such as hurricanes.

The other option is to remain in California and support substantial action to mitigate fire risk.  Two approaches have been suggested; both of them involve major financial expenditures.  One is to upgrade the electrical grid in a way that minimizes the fire risk.  The other is to “harden” vulnerable communities.

As a consequence of the 2017 Tubbs fire — also in Sonoma County — and the 2018 Camp Fire — up the road in Butte County — PG&E declared bankruptcy. (https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-pge-bankruptcy-filing-20190129-story.html)  Now Californians are embroiled in discussion about what to do with the utility.  This will take several years to work out.

In the meantime, Californians, who live outside big cities, must be prepared to have their power shut off for days at a time — during fire season. In other words, Californians who live in rural areas, or the “WUI,” will have to have substantial backup power — generators or solar panels plus batteries  — or do without.  This new reality applies to both homes and businesses — one of the problems uncovered during the October Sonoma County evacuation was that many gas stations did not have power and therefore their pumps didn’t work.  (Obviously, the prospect of continuous power outages places a singular burden on the less fortunate members of the community.)

Regardless of the ultimate disposition of PG&E, the electrical grid needs to hardened.  In many cases this means burying transmission lines and distribution lines.  In other cases this means fortifying electrical substations and transformers.

Vulnerable communities also need to be hardened.  City planners need to severely restrict further building in the WUI.  (A restriction that runs head-on in California’s desire to provide more housing units.)  Communities must provide incentives for landowners to maximize their defensible space.  Evacuation routes need to be widened and adjacent foliage needs to be cleared.  Substantial fire breaks need to be created between communities — spaces at least one-quarter mile wide.  Finally, funding should be provided so that communities can provide “shelter-in-place” fire refuges.

(If these steps aren’t taken, insurance companies are going to declare large swaths of California as uninsurable.  Meaning that many rural communities will disappear.)

If you live outside California, and think none of this relates to you, you’re mistaken.  Global climate change will impact all regions of the United States.  If you live in areas along the Atlantic or Gulf coast you will be subjected to hurricanes and rising tides.  If you live in the midwest, you will be subjected to ice storms and tornados.  When you recognize that this is the new normal, you will be faced with the same decisions that confront Californians: either move or take dramatic action to accommodate these new challenges.  You can run, but you cannot hide.