As fires once again decimate California towns and neighborhoods, residents are looking for answers. In 2017, the state endured some of the most brutal wildfires it had ever seen. Last year's fires accounted for 5 of the 20 most destructive fires in state history and killed nearly as many people as the previous 10 years combined. Today, it appears that frustrating and catastrophic fires are the new normal in California.
Drought conditions and high wind speeds are fueling more fires in 2018. The Mendocino Complex Fire exceeded records set only months earlier by California’s 2017 fires. The fire became California’s most deadly and destructive wildfire on record, burning over 459,000 acres and claiming 94 lives. However, the devastating Mendocino Complex Fire had a short reign at the top—current wildfires are already breaking its records.
Two major fires are currently burning on both ends of the state. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire is approaching 100,000 acres burned, with 3 lives reportedly lost. In Northern California, the Camp Fire is the most destructive wildfire in state history and the worst fire in the nation since 1917. At the writing of this article, the Camp Fire has burned over 150,000 acres and killed 77 people with an additional 993 people unaccounted for. The death toll is expected to increase, and the fire has overwhelmed the state’s disaster response resources. It has destroyed over 10,000 structures, including most of the town of Paradise.
With continuous record-breaking destruction, residents are looking at California’s crisscrossing network of power lines that hang precariously above drought-blighted land and are asking one question: why aren’t power lines underground?
The Role of Powerlines in California Wildfires
Many of the fires mentioned above have been linked to above-ground power lines. After their investigation, Cal Fire reported that power lines caused at least 17 significant wildfires in Northern California in 2017. Recently, Southern California Edison admitted that its equipment started the 2017 Thomas Fire that burned through Ventura County and triggered a landslide that killed 22 people. At the time, the wildfire was the state’s second largest.
While the Camp Fire still burns, early reports are leading some to blame Pacific Gas & Electric for causing it. The company reported two recent outages near where the Camp Fire is suspected to have begun; one a week before the fire, and one on the same morning. Cal Fire is currently investigating the origins of the fire and has not yet confirmed their role.
Burying Fire Hazards
In a statement to the Napa Valley Register, Elizaveta Malashenko, an official from the California Public Utilities Commission, said that power lines are suspended over land for reasons of cost. Malashenko stated that underground lines could increase electricity rates up to 10 times.
New legislation drafted by the California Public Utilities Commission will attempt to regulate above-ground power lines to prevent further fires. The law, SB901, requires utility companies to clear brush around powerlines, inspect growth around power lines, and sets new protocols for regulating power during severe weather.
Pacific Gas & Electric claims they addressed fire risks by shutting off power to areas during high-winds and hazardous weather. The practice was inspired by San Diego Gas & Electric. In 2013, the San Diego utility company shut off power when strong winds created a fire hazard. This practice is controversial as it inhibits the use of medical devices, cell phones, and other means of safety for residents.
However, if Pacific Gas & Electric began this preventative policy this year, and if their power lines were the source of the Camp Fire, their new safety practices already have a rate of failure. As fires destroy homes, entire towns, and lives in California, burying the powerlines may be one of its only solutions. California residents need solutions, not a protocol.