Did an Obsolete, Poorly Maintained Power Grid Spark California Fires?
The raging fires and toxic smoke clouds pouring through Northern California can only be described as apocalyptic.
Were they sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric’s centralized grid?
And where are our federal government and national media?
More than 40 people are dead; many more are missing. Given how fast the fires raced through the region, it’s possible that other humans—as well as farm animals, pets and wildlife—have been incinerated.
In many cases, the margin for escape was five minutes or less. Some people who did not leave their homes at the first sign of danger died. Some stood in home swimming pools for hours while everything burned around them. Flames leaped over Highway 101 and other major roads, creating firestorms with temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and more.
Much of the quiet, comfortable town of Santa Rosa now looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. Whole neighborhoods have been reduced to smoldering ash. Homes, businesses, factories, farms—some 5,700 buildings to date—plus gardens, vineyards, cars and forests have been vaporized.
The death toll is high, the dollar values incomprehensible. Hundreds of square miles of some of the world’s most vital, lush terrain have been obliterated.
Much of the fallout is now entering the lungs of some 7.6 million Bay Area residents.
The cloud recalls the dust and ash that coated New York City after the 9/11 disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency failed to evacuate Manhattan and did not warn area residents to wear protective clothing and masks. Years later, its then-chief, Christine Todd Whitman, issued a public apology.
That cloud contained arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc, cadmium, creosote, furans, dioxins and much much more—a devil’s brew of toxic chemicals perfectly designed to kill a large number of beings over the short and long term.
The cloud now swirling over the Bay Area and Northern California contains huge quantities of wood smoke, which can be toxic. Health authorities have warned people to stay inside and to be especially protective of their children and elders.
Bay Area residents have been urged to wear masks, but hospital-grade masks don’t filter out particulate matter. The heavier-duty N95 masks might help, but existing supplies have sold out. The idea for FEMA or the military to take in supplies of more effective protective gear seems never to have occurred to federal authorities.
Protective gear will be an issue during the cleanup, as toxic ash and other chemical residue will coat debris throughout the region.
Mark Sommer, a Bay Area author and renewable energy advocate, noted that thousands of people fled to shelters in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
“Many Bay Area residents seem in denial of the hazards they face, even at their distance from the fires,” he says. “Some even jog through the haze, pumping lethal chemicals deep into their lungs.”
Sommer, whose view from the 27th floor of an Emeryville, Calif., high-rise faces the Golden Gate and Marin headlands, says visibility has been as low as a quarter-mile. It’s been worse, he says, “than on a bad day in Beijing.”
As of Tuesday, nine days after the conflagration began, the biggest fires are at least 50 percent contained. There is hope the winds will die down. Rain is a welcome possibility.
What has not been welcome is the profound neglect of this catastrophe by the federal government and major media. By and large, the story of this unparalleled catastrophe has played second fiddle to Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sorry sex life. With few exceptions, the death of as many as a hundred or more Americans, the incineration of entire California communities and the poisoning of the air in one of the world’s most beloved cities has been of little interest to the corporate television media.
Nor has it moved Donald Trump.
Needless to say, the president has declined to come to California or seriously discuss this gargantuan tragedy with the media or even in his deranged tweets. No emergency panels have been convened, and there’s been no dramatic mobilization of FEMA. Federal resources to help the multitude of taxpaying Americans whose lives have been destroyed, and whose health and survival are still under fire, have been sparse, to say the least.
The widespread assumption is that because California is largely nonwhite and voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016, he has even less interest in helping people here than he did with Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria. He has, however, continued to gut federal protections against global warming and to push a power plan based on fossil fuels and nuclear reactors.
Conversely, says Sommer, “The most important story here has been the deeply impressive response of emergency personnel, local authorities, firefighters and surrounding communities offering shelter and supplies to the stricken victims of the fires. It’s the strength of local communities that provides the essential resilience required to deal with the cascading calamities of our new normal.”
Within that “new normal,” there’s widespread speculation that this entire catastrophe might have been sparked by an obsolete pole-and-wires grid that is owned and badly maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s dominant utility, according to The (San Jose) Mercury News.
Tied to an aging network of decrepit, fossil-fired power plants, plus two Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors surrounded by earthquake faults near San Luis Obispo, this massive Rube Goldberg grid was by many accounts poised for disaster.
The Mercury News investigation has raised the question of why the wind knocked down so many power lines. According to reporting by Paul Rogers, Lisa Krieger and Matthias Gafni, PG&E is legally required to guarantee that its poles can withstand hurricane-force winds. But The Mercury News says many collapsed in the weaker winds that sparked the fires.
That would lead to the nightmare scenario of a grid-fired catastrophe. In addition to providing wind-resistant poles, PG&E is required to keep the right of way under its power lines free from undergrowth. It also must trim nearby trees so branches and trunks don’t fall on the wires, shorting them out. The Mercury News casts serious doubt on whether that was done, as required by law.
The global-warmed weather conditions that fed this catastrophe are well known. A very wet spring led to a massive explosion of foliage throughout Northern California. But the state’s hot and dry summer turned it all into huge quantities of tinder.
Arson, of course, can’t be ruled out. But PG&E has a brutal history of negligence, according to The Mercury News.
In 1994, the company was convicted on 739 counts of malfeasance and fined almost $30 million after its high-voltage lines were hit by falling trees. The resulting fire destroyed 12 homes and a vintage schoolhouse. Prosecutors showed that the company had taken some $80 million meant for tree-cutting—which might have prevented the fire—and used it to expand profits.
In 2010, company gas lines exploded in the upscale suburb of San Bruno, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. The Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion. Criminal charges were filed in federal court based on the company’s repeated postponement of repairs that could have averted the disaster. No PG&E executives have yet gone to jail.
The company also operates two aging reactors at Diablo Canyon, which are surrounded by earthquake faults. Plagued by core embrittlement, nuclear waste mismanagement, collapsing infrastructure and much more, the utility has cut a deal with state regulators, local communities, labor unions and some environmental groups to shut the reactors in 2024 and 2025. But critics fear that a seismic shock—the reactors are less than 50 miles from the San Andreas Fault—could send a radioactive cloud into downtown Los Angeles within five hours. Under federal law, PG&E would be financially responsible for just a fraction of the ensuing holocaust.
This year’s fires will produce a tsunami of litigation. If it’s proved that PG&E’s downed poles were not to code, and that they sparked foliage that should have been removed, the ensuing lawsuits are likely to involve staggering numbers, demands for jail time and maybe the ultimate bankruptcy of the utility, which would be welcomed by many.
Many people are dead, thousands are homeless, the ecological damage is epic, and the rebuilding costs will stretch into the tens of billions. On the heels of three major hurricanes, this “new normal” defies the imagination.
The dominant question remains: Was this fire caused by an incompetent, negligent megacorporation badly running a centralized electric grid? And if so, what will replace PG&E and its obsolete grid as rebuilding begins?
The challenge runs parallel to that of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There, Hurricane Maria took out the central electric grids entirely. In response, a movement has grown up to replace them with a decentralized network of locally controlled solar panels, wind power and biofuels. Power would be generated and distributed at the community level. To the extent that a heavily revised and downgraded central grid might be useful for large wind and solar farms, its role in a global-warmed world would be as a backup for a decentralized, community-based generation.
Thus begins the campaign to rebuild the islands and Northern California along Solartopian lines, with decentralized solar, wind, biofuels and geothermal energy transcending the old central grid and dumping the old central utilities into the compost heap of history.
As Northern Californians stagger under the shock of deaths, toxic air and ecological and property damage, the debate may seem premature.
The challenge remains: How do we avoid the next global-warmed ecological holocaust? Sommer hopes for “a collaborative design process where cities and their neighborhoods come together to map the architecture of their own power systems.”
But one thing is certain: Their solutions will not include transmission poles that fall over in moderate winds, possibly sparking bone-dry brush left uncut.