Fire season has a ruthless but predictable rhythm in California: the dry air, the battering winds, the out-of-control blazes that descend from mountains or leap from canyons to destroy communities.
The fires get more ferocious as we struggle to adapt, taking extreme measures to beat back nature. In the past month, these forces converged as never before.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. shut off power to millions of residents to prevent its equipment from sparking flames. Cities tried new alert systems to rapidly evacuate people from their homes. Health experts dismissed the air-filter masks that were so ubiquitous last year, advising residents just to stay indoors.
The rapid spread of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County provided a critical test, not only for the state’s disaster response but its land use and infrastructure.
Some residents have resigned themselves to a future in which homes, when not evacuated altogether, will run on generators for several days out of the year. Others are calling for drastic changes, including a state takeover of PG&E.
Here are 15 takeaways from a week of deepening crisis:
1. Shut-offs are no guarantee against fires.
Winds whipped the Kincade Fire through Sonoma County even while PG&E plunged nearly 3 million people into darkness. The timing was ominous for a utility already accused of sparking numerous infernos throughout the state, including last year’s deadly Camp Fire in Butte County. Though the cause has not been determined, representatives of the utility acknowledged that a transmission line that was still operating failed near the fire’s origin, moments before its ignition. Two smaller blazes that flared up during the shut-offs were caused by malfunctioning PG&E equipment that was located outside the shut-off zone. The bottom line: PG&E’s outage strategy is not going to stop fires altogether.
2. Stores ran out of everything: gas, food, ice, batteries, generators.
Supermarkets ran out of food. At gas stations that still had power, tanks went dry. Customers bought every portable generator from every hardware store in the Bay Area. Empty freezers lined the aisles of grocery stores, which sold out of ice, bottled water and frozen food. Mothers scrambled to pump and preserve breast milk. At some shops, it was hard to find D batteries for flashlights. A frantic rush before the next blackout is probably inevitable, but some say they’ve learned to stock up for next time.
3. Masks don’t help with smoke. Stay inside.
Anyone who lived in the Bay Area last year probably remembers those ghoulish N95 air filtration masks. When the skies turned soupy orange and the air smelled like barbecue, it seemed like everyone had one. Offices stocked up on boxes. Drugstores sold out. Turns out they don’t really help, according to health experts. A better solution? Stay inside at home, or hole up in the library, museum or shopping mall. Create a “clean” space at home with air purifiers.
4. Cell service is vulnerable during shut-offs.
It’s generally a good idea to charge all of your devices before a scheduled blackout, but that won’t help if the cell towers in your area go dark. That’s what happened to dozens of them in October, disrupting phone and internet service for thousands of people and prompting questions from regulators. The big danger of cell outages is that they also block emergency communications from cities telling people to evacuate if a wildfire is looming. In some areas, even radio stations went out when PG&E cut power.
5. California’s $40 billion wine industry has rushed to adapt.
Harvest time in Wine Country coincides with the dry winds of autumn, so vintners have learned to pick grapes early and many now run on backup generators — an essential piece of equipment for the cooling systems that keep wines at a certain temperature. Wineries are embedded in the regional economy of Sonoma and Napa counties, areas frequently ravaged by wildfires. The Kincade Fire was especially brutal to the famed Alexander Valley, destroying homes and wineries southwest of Highway 128.
6. It takes an army to fight a wildfire.
More than 5,000 firefighters battled the Kincade Fire, a huge assemblage that was able to mostly corral the blaze by midweek as fierce winds finally died down. After last year’s Camp Fire killed 85 people in Butte County, Northern California cities and counties improved their emergency response, sending crews to form defensive lines, deploying tanker planes and evacuating people long before flames lapped at their doorsteps.
7. Residents of Wine Country have learned a lot since 2017.
The fires that struck Sonoma County two years ago taught residents much about preparedness. It showed this year when crews gained the upper hand on the Kincade Fire with no fatalities. Residents formed neighborhood groups and created defensible space around their homes. Cities and counties strengthened emergency alert systems. Homeowners, city public works departments and PG&E crews cut back flammable vegetation, especially around power lines. It’s all part of living in a world in which fire is inevitable.
8. Evacuations were huge, early and widespread.
Nearly 200,000 people were told to leave their homes before the winds picked up and drove the Kincade Fire toward residential areas in Sonoma County. Some grumbled that officials had become trigger-happy with evacuation orders, advising everyone west of Highway 101 and north of Highway 12 to get out. But county supervisors and firefighters defended the approach, noting that no one died in the inferno — a stark contrast to the Wine Country fires of 2017 and last year’s devastating Camp Fire. “The day we knew the winds were going to come in the evening, it was like waiting for a hurricane,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, referring to the Friday after the fire erupted. “We knew we had this time period to get people moved.”
9. Low-income people were hit the hardest.
Disaster has a built-in economic injustice. Affluent people tend to bounce back, armed with savings and the ability to wait for an insurance payout. But it’s much harder for low-income people to cope. When a blaze wipes out the housing supply, people compete for short-term rentals — and those with means go to the front of the line. Upper-class residents also tend to have “social capital,” meaning friends or family who can supply loans, said Stephen Baiter, executive director of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, an organization dedicated to economic and workforce issues. By contrast, low-income people often suffer. The initial shock of a disaster can be enough to put many people over the edge. Evacuation can mean the loss of a job as well as a home. Stress can cause a person’s health to deteriorate. And once a person is cut adrift, support networks can easily fray.
10. The Bay Area’s housing crisis has pushed more people into fire-prone regions.
More and more Californians are moving to fire country, a result of skyrocketing rents, cities’ restrictions on multifamily rentals and the American dream of a single-family home with a yard. The quest for affordable housing has pushed people out of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland and into places like Lake County, where they are more exposed to risk. Ninety-five percent of the state’s fires are caused by humans, Cal Fire Division Chief Jonathan Cox told reporters during the Kincade Fire. And many experts warn that it’s not just power lines running into the wilderness — it’s people carelessly tossing cigarette butts, cutting trees with chain saws, fixing cars, roasting hot dogs on barbecue grills. That’s the danger of having so many people settle along what is known as the urban-wildland interface. More blazes ignite and spread to residential development.
11. Climate change is making things worse.
Choking heat waves, long dry spells, fire season that extends late into the year — all of these extreme weather conditions are caused or exacerbated by climate change. Scientists blamed the heat that enveloped California last year on a shift in the jet stream, which was allowing weather patterns to stagnate, rather than sweeping them along. Emissions from cars, power plants and factories trap sunlight and warm the atmosphere. Those high temperatures, combined with the protracted dry season, create a combustible environment for the Diablo winds that lash Northern California each autumn.
12. Some rural residents had no water during the blackouts.
Taps went dry in some parts of the Bay Area during the shut-offs, mainly in more rural areas where people rely on wells powered by electricity. Clare Pace, an environmental science researcher at UC Berkeley who is studying the topic, estimates that 183,000 people use wells in the nine-county Bay Area. Municipal water districts advised people to conserve water, a reminder that they, too, rely on electricity to distribute water. Generally, districts are able to cover shut-offs of a few days with generators and there were no reported issues with their service.
13. PG&E improved its communication — with some stumbles.
PG&E’s clunky, crash-prone website added another layer of chaos to the first wave of outages in October, signaling to many that the company was ill-prepared to cut the lights to thousands of people. Its call centers were also overwhelmed, leaving many people without critical information about when the power would go off and when it would come back on. County officials complained PG&E failed to convey information and intentionally overstated areas likely to lose power during the first series of outages. The utility appeared to improve during the most recent outages, building a new website and providing more detailed notifications. Blackouts are by definition unpredictable: PG&E can’t control the weather, it has to shut everything down long before the winds come, and it can’t just flip a switch and shut everything off at once.
14. The fires are a big test for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Fires and outages were all but absent from the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and yet these intertwined crises have created what could be a defining moment of Newsom’s administration. The governor spent the past few weeks traveling up and down the state, stopping at evacuation centers, control rooms and news briefings, blasting PG&E while sympathizing with disaster victims and residents whose power was cut. That approach will work during his first year in office, said Democratic strategist Nathan Ballard, who worked in Newsom’s mayoral administration in San Francisco. But next year, the governor will have to show that he’s doing everything he can to keep the lights on in one of the world’s largest economies. For Newsom, who may have aspirations for a future presidential run, that could mean restructuring the leadership at PG&E, appointing an independent auditor, advocating for a climate change or wildfire-related bond, or restricting housing in certain areas.
15. Get used to it.
Phrases like “new normal” and “new reality” sting in California. No one has floated plausible solutions to fix this situation. We can change zoning laws, but fire zones are already thick with housing, and existing landowners are deeply invested in their properties. Hardening the electrical transmission and distribution system — or putting it underground — would take years and cost billions of dollars that the state doesn’t have. Some have pressed for a state takeover of PG&E, and Newsom has called for more bids from cities and private companies. As these catastrophes continue, people might wind up fleeing California — or at least leaving the areas that are ripe for fire. The market might compel that outward migration before the state sets any new policies, said Baiter, of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance. Soon it may be impossible for homeowners in wildfire zones to qualify for insurance. But that raises a new question, he said. “Literally, where do people go?”
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