On Tuesday, Pacific Gas & Electric warned 51,000 customers in Contra Costa County, California that they could lose power, as the beleaguered utility company shut down its grid due to an elevated wildfire risk. Nearly 800,000 PG&E subscribers — more than 2 million people — were expected to lose power in the region overall.
The warning area included the Meals on Wheels kitchen in the city of Antioch, located east of Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay. That chapter of the charity provides food for more than 1,000 people — mostly seniors.
“We had asked our volunteers to report in even if we had no power and no food, so that we could still do the welfare check that we typically do when we deliver food,” said Nancy Raniere, nutrition services division manager for Meals on Wheels Diablo Region. All 63 of their volunteers came in, even though many lacked power at their own homes, she said.
Strong seasonal winds that regularly strike California in autumn and early winter — called Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south — motivated PG&E to conduct widespread power shutoffs.
“We have had some preliminary reports of damage to our lines. So we’ll have to repair those damages before we can safely energize the line,” PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty told the Associated Press.
On Thursday, those wild gusts spread south, pushing Southern California Edison to shut off power to 12,000 people. Those measures weren’t enough to stifle a fire that struck near Los Angeles, destroying homes.
Yet early signs suggest that PG&E may have overestimated the fire risk this week.
If it feels like you hear about California’s fire risks every fall, it’s because they have become habitual. Fire season is stretching later and later into the year — because of warming temperatures, increased droughts and annual winds.
The last two autumns witnessed the two most destructive fires in California history. The Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties destroyed 5,600 structures in October 2017, while the 2018 Camp Fire demolished nearly 19,000 buildings — most in the town of Paradise. At least 85 people died in that blaze.
PG&E power lines were faulted as the cause of the Camp Fire, and attorneys for victims still believe the utility can be blamed for the Tubbs Fire too, even though an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cleared the company in January.
In response, PG&E has signaled that these shutoffs could happen annually until its power grid and mostly above-ground power lines can be overhauled to withstand the fire risks created by windy weather. Such an update will take years to finish.
“All of a sudden PG&E is in a situation where it needs to replace about a quarter or half of its system with new components,” said Michael Wara, head of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute. “There isn’t the personnel anywhere in the country to do that, let alone just in California, let alone in PG&E’s service territory.”
At the same time, the company is facing bankruptcy and a massive reorganization, stemming from a multibillion dollar financial liability accrued from sparking past wildfires. As a result, Wara suspects PG&E will need up to a decade to complete its renovation.
Will the fire risk circle back every year? The answer may have less to do with windy weather, and be more dependent on climate change.
The magic ingredient for a California wildfire is…rain
While the headlines this week focused on the winds, California’s fire risk traces back to weather last winter and spring — when record amounts of rain fell across much of the state and helped end a seven-year-long drought.
“After a healthy winter like we had last year, there’s lots of annual vegetation that grows up,” said Daniel Cayan, a climate scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
That makes for beautiful spring landscapes — remember all of those instagram photos of the massive super blooms? But when summer arrives and dries out those lush grasses and shrubs, concerns for wildfires grow.
Propelling this drying-out process are the Diablo and Santa Ana winds, which start east of California. Autumn is the start of cold, low-pressure storms over the Great Basin, several thousand feet up in Nevada and Utah.
As they move, these winter storm systems “leave behind cold air and are replaced by surface high pressure,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
This high-pressure system naturally wants to flow off the Great Basin plateau toward the low pressure, low elevation air located along the California coast. Each time the air flies downhill, it heats up and accelerates, allowing it to roll over the Sierra Mountains into the Central Valley and again over the coastal canyons.
Because this air starts at a higher elevation, it is already more arid than the air that hovers near the surface. Sliding down mountains and into valleys only makes the air hotter and drier, but it also saps moisture from fields and forests during the plunge.
“Last night, for example, we were seeing humidity of like 1 or 2 percent in the vicinity of Santa Rosa,” the largest city in Sonoma County, Swain said. “Winds in the hills above that region were gusting 50, 60, and in a few cases even above 70 miles an hour.”
This scenario creates the conditions for wildfires, and warrants power shutoffs in years where California’s rainy season is delayed. California has a Mediterrean climate, which means it goes through a long dry spell in the summer, which typically ends with autumn downpours.
“In the firefighting world, they’re called season-ending rains,” Swain said. “Historically, they can occur really anytime from October until December — or in Southern California, sometimes you have to wait till January.”
If the rains arrive before the Diablo and Santa Ana wind events, then the fire risk is typically neutralized. California’s grasslands and forests become too wet to spark.
But Cayan and Swain said global warming and climate change appear to be pushing back these rainy seasons, so they occur mostly in the core winter months of December, January and February (though last year’s rains in California extended into May). California weather then whiplashes — becoming hot and dry for longer than before. Swain said rising temperatures in Northern California are aggravating this trend too.
Climate change doesn’t appear to be changing when the Diablo and Santa Ana winds occur, but it’s becoming more likely that they roll across a parched landscape in the autumn, raising the fire risk.
The fire risk is real. But did PG&E act too hastily?
Many residents in San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose may have noticed that the winds didn’t really pick up in their area over the last two days. That’s because Diablo and Santa Ana events can be a patchwork.
People who live at lower elevations — valleys and coastlines — don’t always see higher winds during these events, while low hills of a thousand feet can experience near hurricane-force winds.
While there were wind gusts in excess of 70 miles an hour in the mountains above the Bay Area Wednesday night, you would not have known it in San Francisco or Silicon Valley because it was pretty calm down at sea level, Swain said.
“This event was projected to be the strongest in the two years since the October 2017 event, but it did not quite live up to that level, fortunately,” Swain said. “That was pretty consistent with the forecast that had been made.”
If that’s the case, then why did PG&E cut power to millions, hours before the winds arrived?
Because PG&E transmission lines run over the hills east and south of the San Francisco Bay, said Severin Borenstein, faculty director at the University of California Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas, where high winds present a real fire hazard.
Transmission lines are the huge, stories-high power lines that act as power superhighways — as opposed to local distribution lines on wooden poles, which branch down into a city or town. Once PG&E cut power to transmission lines, it shut down power to places which are not particularly fire prone, Borenstein said.
Even though PG&E had issued past warnings about massive shutoffs to its 16 million customers, the company had only conducted them in rural areas up until Wednesday.
“So some people were caught off guard thinking that this couldn’t happen in a more urban area,” Borenstein said, due to poor communication of these patchy risks by PG&E.
According to the newspaper Desert Sun, “of the 129,320 customers of the three major power companies who have experienced preemptive outages due to wildfire risk since 2017, just 158 were” Southern California Edison customers. The rest belonged to PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric, the latter of which has been conducting them regularly since it set off three wildfires in 2007 with $379 million in damages.
Even though there were shutoffs at the time, more than 1.5 million acres burned in California in both 2017 and 2018. This year, 40,000 acres burned through Oct. 6, but both Cayan and Swain said it would have been as bad as previous years, if not for cooler temperatures this summer.
Facing a decade of potential shutoffs, what can people do?
For Meals on Wheels in Contra Costa County, the most recent shutoff was a red flag. Raniere said only three towns in the charity’s coverage area — Orinda, Moraga and Lafayette — experienced power shutoffs on Thursday. Several of the 35 seniors they service in those areas needed flashlights, she said. But their kitchen remained energized, meaning their volunteers could deliver meals as usual.
“It’s definitely been a wakeup call for us,” Raniere said, and their organization has begun gearing up to face what might become annual power outages. Over the last three months, they have handed out emergency packs that contain six, shelf-stable meals to all of their clients — an activity they plan to repeat annually. Leading up to this week’s power shutdown, their drivers helped their clients move the packs to accessible places in their homes. They’ve also started keeping lists of people who may have medical needs during electric outages.
That issue sprung up west of Contra Costa County, when the City of Berkeley advised Tuesday that residents “who are power-dependent for medical reasons…use their own resources to get out.”
Hi Melissa – We are asking those in the potentially affected area who are power-dependent for medical reasons to use their own resources to get out. If they are unable to relocate and power loss will cause an immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room.
— City of Berkeley (@CityofBerkeley) October 9, 2019
The city said emergency services would be provided for life-threatening situations, but their tweet (and the derision it fostered) speak to a larger problem with PG&E’s preemptive power outages.
The bankrupt utility may owe victims and insurance companies anywhere between $20 and $40 billion dollars, Wara said. Since 1997, California’s inverse condemnation law has held utilities liable for the damages caused by a fire, even if the company did not act negligently. The California Public Utilities Commission said the utility can’t pass its wildfire-related costs onto their subscribers.
Moving its 81,000 miles of power lines underground would be prohibitively expensive — with a cost ranging between $3 million to $5 million per mile, according to KQED. In April, a California judge stated that the company had also skipped on its tree trimming budget, instead, paying out $4.5 billion in stock dividends to its investors. Hardening the power grid — by insulating the wires or installing fail safes for damaged lines, for example — represents the only feasible path for PG&E, Wara said.
All of these factors will leave Californians — especially in the north — in a predicament for years to come. The North in particular carries a high density of both fire-prone grasslands and forests, the latter of which have experienced an 800 percent increase in summertime fires over the last five decades. Cayan, Swain and others expect fall fires to worsen and expand as warming increases.
And while California boasts some of the fastest adoption of residential solar power in the country, Borenstein said that solution is still unaffordable for most individual homes, due to the falling but still high costs of personal solar panels and batteries.