A troubled utility in California repeatedly shut off power to homes last week to prevent wildfire ignitions, while Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has waived a major environmental law to allow expedited fire prevention efforts.
Wildfire season is underway in California, and state and business leaders are deploying new strategies in a bid to avoid the kind of death and destruction seen in recent years.
“The devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires have made it overwhelmingly clear that more must be done to adapt and address the threat of wildfires and extreme weather with greater urgency,” said Tamar Sarkissian, spokeswoman at Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the largest utility in the state.
San Francisco-based PG&E shut off power to 27,500 Northern California residents last Monday and then 48,200 more on Wednesday. Winds had kicked up and the humidity dropped, increasing the odds that tree branches or other vegetation could knock down power lines and ignite fires.
The utility earlier this year warned it planned to sharply increase the use of power shut-offs to prevent its equipment igniting fires. PG&E is in bankruptcy reorganization as it deals with as much as $30 billion in liabilities related to fires in 2017 and 2018.
The shut-off plan comes as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) works on 35 priority fire prevention projects. Those include clearing brush near highways and removing dead trees near communities in the “wildland urban interface.”
The projects are covered by Newsom’s environmental waiver. In March, the governor declared a state of emergency that exempted the projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, a law mandating an in-depth analysis of a development’s impacts on land, water, species and other elements.
Clearances under CEQA can take months or years, Newsom aides said. State officials argued they’re still conducting analyses to ensure projects don’t hurt species or natural or tribal resources.
Years of not managing forests and a changing climate have put the state in a difficult situation, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman at California’s Office of Emergency Services.
“The status quo is putting people’s lives at risk,” he said. “It’s really incumbent on the state to plot a new path forward to actively manage our forests in a way that’s going to avoid these megafires and keep people safe.”
More than $200 million from California’s carbon cap-and-trade program revenues is funding forest health and fire prevention work. The state argues that’s allowable because wildfires emit greenhouse gases.
‘Money is more important’
Cal Fire has said it needs to treat 500,000 acres per year for a decade. This year, it will treat about 33,000 acres. The agency needs more than 10 times the money it’s getting for the work, said Michael Wara, a Stanford University professor who served as one of five members of California’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery.
“Environmental regulations are important,” Wara said. “Money is more important.”
Wara said he was skeptical the 35 Cal Fire projects would get done this year. Matthew Reischman, assistant deputy director for resource protection at Cal Fire, said five are completed and a few more are close to being done. There’s not an immediate plan for how to expedite environmental clearances after Cal Fire finishes all 35.
Some environmental advocates question the need for the CEQA exemption.
Susan Britting, executive director at Sierra Forest Legacy, said many of the 35 projects wouldn’t have required onerous environmental reviews. Activities near communities and related to road maintenance typically don’t require a full environmental impact report under CEQA, she said.
And waiving CEQA didn’t really speed up the projects since the state still is doing checks for environmental conflicts, she said.
“Declaring the emergency was more about attention getting,” Britting said, and perhaps “establishing the need and importance of funding them.”
Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said some projects involve local permits, and many city and county planning departments are understaffed and backlogged. That’s not a CEQA issue, she said.
She also questioned making a priority of several “fuel breaks,” or clearing brush near roads. That won’t protect people “in this era of serious, severe wind-driven fires in an extraordinarily dry climate,” Phillips said.
Some of the most severe fires last year and in 2017, she said, were in areas adjacent to wildlands like Ventura County north of Los Angeles where “no amount of fire break, as they saw there, helped.” There were “zillions of embers going at an incredible pace landing on vegetation that was dry in people’s backyards, and landing on roofs and going into vents,” she said.
Protecting homes vs. forest management
Wara argued more state funds should go toward efforts to preserve homes in high-risk areas, including several urban communities.
“Right now we have a set of priorities that are really out of whack,” Wara said. “We’re basically managing it like it’s a forestry problem instead of a community defense problem.”
The state should fund incentives or grants to ensure people have asphalt shingle roofs, which are more fire-resistant, he said. There could be funding to help people seal gutters and attic vents so embers can’t get inside.
Wara suggested there could also be requirements for a 2-foot buffer of “hardscape” such as rock around a house. Such a mandate needs to be communitywide, he said, because one house that doesn’t have the right defenses puts others at risk.
“Once a house ignites, it raises the chance that the house next to it will ignite,” Wara said.
County fire departments enforce defensible space rules more stringently in Southern California than in Northern California, Wara said. In recent years, fires destroyed a quarter the number of homes in Southern California compared with in Northern California, he said.
There are other factors involved, including different vegetation, he said, but “let’s get Northern California doing what Southern California does.”
Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean said restoring forest health is important, along with making homes better able to withstand brush fires.
“Our whole program is to promote several different things together,” McLean said. “People are picking out home hardening, or they’ll go to defensible space. One or the other is not going to be the remedy.”
Wara acknowledged it can be tough to get people to accept some fire prevention ideas, including removing trees and other plants. Recently in Mill Valley, a liberal and affluent San Francisco Bay Area enclave, the City Council proposed a mandatory 3-foot zone around homes that would need to be clear of vegetation.
“People went bananas. They just totally rejected it,” Wara said. “They shouted down the fire chief,” demanding, “What about my azaleas?” he said. The proposal was turned into a voluntary program.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.