7 November 2019

WILDFIRES II

Heat and greed

Extreme power blackouts by California’s energy giants tell a story for our times

By Merope Mills

At around 10pm on Saturday 25 October the power was cut across large swathes of Northern California. Lights flickered out and dishwashers ground to a halt. Out on the streets, traffic lights turned dark, gas stations stopped pumping, and restaurants shut their doors to customers. Over the next few days, nearly one million homes and businesses were deliberately put in the dark.

In Sonoma county – one of California’s most famous wine regions – the Kincade fire was raging. A thick layer of smoke had already descended over much of the San Francisco Bay Area and the planned blackout by the area’s only electricity provider, PG&E, was an attempt to stop further fires igniting in an unseasonably hot, dry October.

The intensifying of Californian wildfires, and the extreme “blackout” response to combating them, tells a story of our time. It is a tale of both rising temperatures and corporate greed.

The Kincade claims another home, this time along Highway 128 in Healdsburg

Each year, California’s inferno is getting progressively worse: more acreage burned, more damage to human property. In 2017, Jerry Brown, then governor of California, called it “the new normal”. Last November’s Camp Fire, which obliterated the town of Paradise, was the deadliest and most destructive in California history. It ripped through 19,000 homes and killed 85 people. It grew so quickly, at one point it was burning the equivalent of one football pitch a second. Many residents couldn’t escape fast enough.

Climate change alone cannot explain the worsening fires. But extreme weather patterns have aggravated and accelerated the problem. When the autumn winds arrive, the parched landscape is like a tinderbox: all it needs is a spark, and chaos ensues.

But where that spark originates is now the subject of local fury. There are three large energy companies across all of California, but they are all investor-owned, all monopolistic in the areas they operate, and they all have a history of starting wildfires with faulty equipment.

The largest, PG&E, is the most egregious. They are responsible for half of the state’s most destructive fires since 2015.

Helicopters drop water as firefighters try to keep the Easy fire from crossing the road into Thousand Oaks

The official cause of last week’s Kincade fire – which ultimately burnt an area twice the size of San Francisco – has yet to be determined. But PG&E has already reported a failure at a 43-year old transmission tower only seven minutes before the fire erupted. (At the same time, a fire was making its way across Ventura county, north of Los Angeles. Southern California Edison, the large supplier of that region, disclosed that 13 minutes before it began they returned electricity to a nearby circuit after previously shutting it off in order to prevent fires).

These facts are unlikely to prove coincidental. Last year’s deadly Camp Fire was ignited by a wire breaking free from a PG&E power line that was over 100 years old. The company knew that it was 25 years too old – but still it remained in use. For years the companies picked profits over maintenance.

Other fires have been caused by trees felling power lines in high winds. Yet rather than fix them, the company spent lavishly on lobbying and public relations and heaped rewards on shareholders. Earlier this year, one Californian judge ruled the company hadn’t done enough in tree trimming and maintenance around their lines. “PG&E pumped out $4.5 billion in dividends and let the tree budget wither,” he said.

And only a few months ago, the company planned to pay bonuses of nearly $11m to 12 senior executives, before the courts intervened. But $235m worth of bonuses was still awarded to 10,000 employees, despite objections from a legal team representing wildfire victims.

A crew of firefighters on their way to battle the Kincade Fire

Private ownership of these essential utilities is now firmly in the spotlight. Only this week, the mayors of over 20 Californian cities backed a plan to turn PG&E into a customer-owned cooperative. PG&E is resisting that move, but it will eventually have to undergo some form of restructuring, having filed for bankruptcy in January.

For now, cutting power is part of that “new normal” for California, one of the richest places in the world, with an economy larger than the United Kingdom according to some measurements. (The San Francisco Bay Area alone would rank 19th in the world against national economies.) Extinction Rebellion activists often justify the disruption by arguing it is nothing compared to the disruption we’ll face by climate change in the future. A powerless California gives us a taste of what that future might be like.

During my recent trip, a Safeway supermarket in Montclair, Oakland, was no longer stocking perishables and the security guard showed me around a darkened aisle of canned food by flashlight. At traffic intersections nearby, drivers were fending for themselves without traffic lights. And, all over the area, small businesses were feeling the pinch from PG&E’s new blackout policy.

A customer shops for groceries at La Tapatia Market during a blackout in Napa, California

Corinne Kinczel is the owner of Rockys, a small grocery store and cafe that was affected by the outage. “We haven’t finished counting yet, but we think it cost us around $40,000. The insurance won’t cover it because it was a planned outage – even though we didn’t plan it. It’s not just us – for every business it’s the same.”

Residents are trying their best to adjust. Patrick Lew, 53, told me: “It feels like the power will just now go off when PG&E feels like there’s a need. We’re looking into buying a generator, or we have solar so maybe we’ll buy a backup battery.”

“It’s very inconvenient. Our water system needs electricity so now we don’t have hot water. My mum lives in another part of Oakland so we’ve been going to her house to shower.”

Electricity returned to the area only after the wind had died down and PG&E had inspected every inch of its power lines – a job they have to do by sight with workers walking the lines. But with no rain in sight, the dry weather, wildfire threats and further blackouts are expected to continue into November.

Still, on 31 October, one girl drew wry smiles from locals. She had dressed up in all-black with a sign: “This costume was brought to you by PG&E”. She was celebrating Halloween as the blackout.

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading

The National Geographic report ‘California fires are raging’ shows how wildfires start and how they’re put out

A Wall Street Journal report on PG&E exposes documents showing the utility were aware parts of its transmission system were dangerously outdated

A town’s survivors tell their story of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people in the Guardian

The New York Times offers an inside report from the PG&E control room during the first blackout