Climate Change and the California Fires

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File picture, personal collection

The Camp Fire is the deadliest fire in California history. It is also the most destructive. The town, Paradise, was mostly destroyed by the Camp Fire. We have tens of thousands of climate refugees, that may, or may not go home and rebuild. Whether they should is also a good question at this point.

We do not know the cause of the Camp Fire. At least not yet. However, we know that the local utility, PG&E, was found liable for another fire within the last twenty-four months. There were also reports of sparks near, or at the point of origin from one of their transmission lines.

“In this case we know an awful lot,” said Oakland attorney Michael Danko, who represents a group of plaintiffs who lost homes and possessions in the town of Paradise and the surrounding area. He said information includes witnesses as well as a PG&E safety incident report made to the California Public Utilities Commission about problems with equipment near where the fire is believed to have started.

This matters, since not only have two class action lawsuits been filed, but the company has a history. However, the state passed legislation to preemptively bail them out, because of that fire, since they faced bankruptcy.

Cal Fire investigators determined that 11 of the fires were caused by PG&E. They have turned those cases over to the corresponding District Attorney’s offices. PG&E could be on the hook for millions — even billions — in damages.

”Before we know what PG&E’s liabilities are, we’ve already given a bailout and that’s wrong,” said State Sen. Jerry Hill. “What we voted on last night was to allow PG&E, if they are negligent and can’t afford to pay that liability, we will pass that cost onto ratepayers, make them pay for it,” Hill said, referring to PG&E customers.

The Camp Fire is the worst in the state’s history. Casualties, confirmed dead, stand at sixty-three and there are hundreds still missing, six hundred and thirty-one per the last report. This is no joke, and this is not a drill. What we are seeing is purely a consequence of climate change, bad management, what could be construed as a captured regulatory agency, and bad winds.

Then there are the refugees. We have fifty-two thousand who were displaced and many, if not most, have lost everything. They have no roof over their heads, and while there are some limited sheltering operations in place, we really need a lot more to deal with the scope of the disaster. It seems as if we have forgotten how to take care of our own. Where is the national guard setting camps that can house thousands of people for a longer term than school gyms?

There is a danger in what we are doing.It is a public health issue, as well as simply cruelty added to deep losses and trauma. It speaks to American society when we are unable to do this. Perhaps we are still in denial.

Managing Climate Refugees

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1906 Tent City San Francisco Earthquake

This is the first point, we are facing a refugee crisis that will soon become a humanitarian crisis. We do not like to use terms like this when it comes to our own. But this denial is not healthy.

We have climate refugees.

They are internally displaced, and they need the help of professionals. This is not unlike Katrina that displaced tens of thousands as well. Given the number of people still missing, people are not going anywhere and there is no hotel capacity nearby to take in tens of thousands of people.

It is time to swallow our pride and get the National Guard to build a few tent camps with the capacity to mass feed thousands of people. This facilities also have to have portable showers, a mobile medical unit, and tents that have to have heat. Why? Winter is coming.

We can do this because the army does this regularly when deployed. They know how to set up forward operating bases, or camp cities at the border to face another train of refugees. However these are foreign, so no issue in using the term. But having people living out of their cars at a Walmart parking lot is not just inhumane, but will become a health crisis, and soon. That is sustainable for at most two weeks. Moreover, they have received an eviction notice.

At one time we even had NGOs within the United States that were experienced in this matter, but these days they are unprepared for the extent of this. So it is time for disaster managers with a few non-governmental organizations to train up and get the supplies in storage to do precisely this. School gyms are hardly sufficient for more than a week, maybe two. This one looks like it will be months before either people move on, or move back. For the moment, the National Guard has the capacity to this. Nor is this unprecedented in American history. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake tent cities rose.

Which reminds me. Civil defense used to be something we used to do far better. We need to re-learn those skills and realize that with climate change we will have more of these disasters. Ergo, part of the preparation is civil defense.

Then I come to the next issue. Climate change means we need to harden essential infrastructure. Some of this is obvious, and it is very expensive. Building codes need to come up in line with the threat. Meaning, all new structures must be built to do better in wildfires. Some of this logic will go against earthquake codes. The US uses wood to build housing because it does better in quakes, I believe. However, wood and fire are not precisely friendly. So we need to research materials that will do well in both situations, Mind you, wildfires will be far more destructive and happen more often as climate change deepens.

We are expected to see increasingly hot summers. By that, I mean triple-digit temperatures. We know this will do the following:

Wildfires will likely become more common through the end of the century, with the fire season possibly extending from October to November, according to a 2014 study published in Climate Dynamics. Increased temperatures dry out vegetation, turning it into perfect fuel for fires. And when it does burn, fine particulate matter that can get trapped in lungs is pumped into the atmosphere.

We will have to harden building codes. But we will have to do a few more things. And I am betting a lot of them will not be popular.

We need to decide whether building in the woodland-urban interface should be even be done? There are issues with this, and we will continue to have fires. They are not just part of the lifecycle of Manzanita, but with hotter summers we expect deeper droughts. This makes for perfect conditions for fire.

It is not unlike allowing for the rebuilding in flood zones that will also see more disastrous floods. Like at the Gulf Coast, where whole communities may ultimately be abandoned, we may have to do the same in California’s interior.

We also need to harden infrastructure. It is time to stop fiddling with it, and the utilities need to bury the electrical lines. We know the expense. It is about ten times as much to bury lines than it is to build them over the air. Steel poles are not enough hardening. Moreover, utilities do start fires often in over the air infrastructure and defensively they are cutting power to backcountry communities. San Diego Gas and Electric does this often, for example. Why? They lost billions after the Cedar fire and were told they cannot pass the costs to ratepayers. (Incidentally, for those keeping scores. San Diego has among the highest electric rates in the nation.)

Burying the lines, short-term will be very expensive, However, having to replace infrastructure every so often will get up there in cost anyway. We must also ask if it is time to break up the utilities, or make them public? They once were public.

State Senator Jerry Hill told KQED:

”At some point we have to say enough is enough,” Hill said. “And I think we need to seriously look at whether an investor-owned utility model is good for California because the incentive is really the critical issue as I see it. Maybe when profits are the reason that you’re doing your job, that creates a question especially in light of the safety aspect of it.”

He also questioned why PG&E did not shut down power lines earlier this week like it did in several Northern California counties last month when there were similar high wind conditions that eventually led to the Camp Fire sparking on Thursday.

“Was it because they were criticized for that?” Hill said. “But then they put the entire community at risk by not doing that. I think that the management of PG&E is incapable at this point in time of really operating a prudent and responsible utility.”

He’s not been a fan of the utility since the San Bruno explosion in 2010, but his question should be raised for all utilities in the state. The for-profit model may not be a good thing in a changing climate since profit is ahead of anything else. Incidentally, the stock for the utility fell, dramatically.

We also need to face the reality that the insurance industry will force some of the changes to private property as their loses increase.

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.

“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers,” Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”

The reason that many towns at the edge of the forest don’t apply those standards is cost, he said. But as climate change gets worse, that calculus becomes more shortsighted.“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers,” Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”

We are facing a new reality. To quote Governor Jerry Brown, “this is the new abnormal.” But we will be forced to change in ways that most of us are not familiar with. Or in some ways, change how we do business and how we use the land.

As to the town of Paradise. If it is rebuilt, some of the things that need to happen in land use. Building suburban subdivision so close to each other in that kind of an environment is not a good idea. Moreover, having one way in and out proved to be a death trap. And since we have a new town that needs rebuilding, perhaps it is time to consider either the building standards to be used or whether to rebuilt. And if we decide not to, how do you compensate the owners? We ask the same question in coastal areas, and with ocean rise, we will lose coastal communities as well.

Incidentally, in San Diego’s back country we have more than a few areas that have one way in and out. Fortunately the population density is not as high as Paradise. But we need to review evacuation plans for starters. We have had fires in the recent past that did a lot of damage. So there is that, and one of them, in 2014, by the coast.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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