The 2019 California wildfire season was remarkably, almost happily, quiet. Until it wasn’t.
October arrived and 80,000 acres erupted in flames. More than 300,000 people were evacuated and more than 3 million subjected to precautionary blackouts, some lasting five days. Mobile phone service was choked off. Interstates closed. School kids used flashlights in class.
Unusually strong winds — often registering at hurricane strengths, racing at more than 74 miles per hour — fanned the small fires that always stir in the fall. Three fatalities were reported.
There was something to be thankful for, with far less acreage torched this year than last. But October proved a pattern has been set.
Californians now approach autumn, said Michael Wara of Stanford University, “with a sense of dread.”
“It’s going to happen more,” said Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and a resident of Marin County, where he was without electricity for four days. As the effects of climate change usher in ever drier and warmer falls, “the only direction it will get is not better.”
This year, unprecedented precautionary measures were taken, with giant PG&E Corp. and other utilities shutting off power to areas around spots deemed to be at high fire risk because of ferocious winds, deadening the live wires and other equipment that might produce sparks. PG&E said it found more than 280 instances of damage or other wind-related problems on shuttered lines that could have caused fires.
At one point, almost one out of every 10 residents of the world’s fifth largest economy was without power.
It’s too early to know what positive impact the planned outages had. The causes of the October fires haven’t been determined. Electrical lines are suspected in at least six, including the Kincade, the most significant blaze so far of 2019. It started late in the evening on Oct. 23 in the hills near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.
The culprit there may have been a high-tension wire operated by PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization in January. The company faces an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from past wildfires where its equipment was found by authorities to be at fault.
Weather also shares the blame, with climate change altering the intensity and duration of the fire seasons. They typically have started in June and reached their peaks in September and October, when the Santa Ana and Diablo winds roar out of the east. But the deadliest and most destructive blaze, the Camp Fire, killed 85 in November 2018. The second largest, the Thomas Fire, was in December 2017.
This October wasn’t nearly as horrible, but horrible enough.
“Every day of this fire season brings further proof that we are living through extraordinary times here in California,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said at a media briefing Wednesday. “And as much as we would like to think that we are living through a single awful episode and once it passes everything will return to normal, that’s not likely to be the case.”
California has been at the vanguard of efforts to slow climate change, with regulations requiring sales of special gasoline blends that reduce destructive tailpipe emissions and laws mandating that industries reduce their carbon output and utility providers increase their pulls from renewable energy sources.
But the wildfire trajectory has gone from bad to worse. State government set aside $1 billion for prevention measures and in June established a $21 billion insurance fund — financed by ratepayers and shareholders — that utilities can tap to help defray fire-related costs and claims from victims.
The idea behind the fund was to stave off another bankruptcy and shore up confidence in operators of the grid. Investors are concerned, though, that the $21 billion could be eaten up long before the fund’s planned 10-year run, Citigroup Inc. analyst Praful Mehta wrote in a research note.
The utilities are “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Toby Shea, an analyst with Moody’s Investors Service. If they shut off power, they risk incurring the wrath of their customers. If they don’t, they risk sparking a catastrophic wildfire and, then, financial ruin.
Governments are wedged in, too, because there are no quick policy solutions to counter nature’s wrath.
“Broad swaths of the state are likely to experience relatively hotter, drier conditions over time,” according to a recent report from Moody’s Investors Service, citing data from affiliate Four Twenty Seven, an affiliate of “Longer droughts, warmer temperatures, stronger winds and vegetation density create conducive conditions for the outbreak of wildfires, increasing the vulnerability of a utility’s electric transmission and distribution system.”
A new fire, Maria, broke out Thursday night north of Los Angeles and was raging Friday on about 8,000 acres. No rain is forecast for at least the next week. The U.S. Weather Service has warned that the threat of blazes remains high.