How PG&E – Along with Climate Change – Put Northern California in the Dark

View of the Camp Fire from a satellite. Photo: Stuart Rankin

Unless you were directly affected, you probably don’t remember much about the Tubbs Fire. In 2017, a wildfire slammed the Sonoma area on its way to becoming the most destructive fire in California’s history. Just two years later, it seems like a fire of the past.

Let’s face it, we’ve been battered by so hard wildfires that it’s hard to put the past two years in perspective. For example, the Mendocino Complex Fire, California’s largest ever, is rarely discussed because it lacks the storytelling of the Camp or Carr Fires. But it’s about time we discuss how we can prevent these wildfires, and power shutdowns, in the future.

To fix the problem, we must first find the source. As we sit in the dark amid yet another PG&E power shutdown, people are angry. Obviously, something needs to change so we don’t have to buy generators, close down businesses and cancel school. But who’s to blame?

That’s a more complicated question than would be believed by the internet commenters of NorCal. And while many comment section warriors might point the finger at forest management (certainly a problem), there are mainly two parties to blame in this instance.

The first, is the physical corporation whose corporate greed and mismanagement have been highlighted heavily in the media – PG&E. There’s no doubt that Pacific Gas and Electric should burden the blame for many NorCal wildfires, including the fire that surpassed Tubbs as California’s most destructive – the Camp Fire. Reports of shareholder payouts in lieu of equipment management is an obvious scapegoat, and the shareholders have paid with massive losses from stock market valuations.

PG&E began in San Francisco in 1852 under the name San Francisco Gas Company, and it was pretty benign for 150 years. A private company providing electricity for the settlers of the Gold Rush in Northern California was far from controversial. Now, they own so much land and infrastructure in NorCal that they’ve become the company that lights most homes in the area and provide great jobs for hundreds of hard-working people. But as many corporations go, money stood in the way of PG&E’s legacy, and the fat cats in San Francisco got greedy.

Historic photo of PG&E powerhouse in the Sierra

Although PG&E has certainly made mistakes along the way, no one saw these wildfires coming. There’s no doubt in my mind that if PG&E executives knew the outcome of the past few years, they would have certainly invested in cleaning up there equipment and making it more firesafe. How do I know this? Have you seen there stock price lately? They lost much more money during the wildfire madness than if they had invested in equipment upgrades, or perhaps burying some power lines.

But there’s another culprit hiding in plain sight that deserves much of the blame for wildfires and subsequent PG&E power shutdown. It’s a little thing called climate change – and yes people, it’s real.

The fact of the matter is that a new variable entered the equation recently, and it comes in the form of short winters, dry autumns and straight-up drought. That’s right, climate change + PG&E = wildfire devastation. There’s no two ways about it. There are plenty of Northern California residents still out there who are quick to deny climate change. But it’s never been more evident to the naked eye than seeing the changes in recent years in NorCal.

I had a moment of zen recently while watching Netflix’s new documentary Paradise on Fire, which highlights tales of tragedy and survival in Paradise during the events of the Camp Fire. But it was words of Cal Fire Captain Sean Norman that really struck me about the “New Normal” of devastating wildfires in NorCal.

Cal Fire Captain Sean Norman provided chilling words in Netflix’s Camp Fire documentary. Photo: Fire in Paradise

“Everyone wants to focus on the fuel portion of it, that’s just one component,” said Norman. “The part that’s affecting us the most is our weather. And that’s what’s driving these fires. We’re setting records every year, our humidities are lower, the fires are burning as aggressively at night as they are during the day. And so we don’t ever get that chance to get ahead of it. And the toll on our people is extreme.”

There’s no doubt there are multiple reasons why the Camp Fire became so devastating on November 8, 2018, including the fuels that sit on the ground in our forests. But that quote from a ranking CalFire official who bravely saved people’s lives during the Camp Fire tells a story of climate change. A story that includes devastation, financial loss and even death.

There’s plenty of strong evidence out there that shows the changing climate’s involvement in these wildfires. If you need ironclad evidence of how climate change is involved, I implore you to read this article in which UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain outlines how our changing weather patterns are the root cause of these fires.

There will be plenty of people that want to place blame on one distinct cause of these fires, especially with the struggles of Northern Californians without power due to the shutdowns. I would argue that this is a nuanced topic and one that requires a lot of research, time and financial investment to fix.

Yes, Northern Californians are jaded. But it’s about time we come together to solve this nuanced problem with longterm solutions based in fact, without the petty arguments from comment section warriors. Although PG&E is certainly at blame for this madness, just remember that some fires, like the Tubbs and Carr Fires, were not caused by the embattled power company. Something larger’s afoot and i’s called climate change.

Zach O'Brien

Zach O'Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Active NorCal

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