California’s extreme wildfires this week are a Climate Change story

Paradise California has been destroyed by a massive wildfire and while the news has focused on the devastation in Paradise, there is another story. PG&E is surely to be blamed for starting the fire, because a PG&E power line went down outside of Pulga at the same time. But, why did a downed power line start such a massive fire? We are told not to attribute specific events to climate change, but the warming climate clearly contributed to starting this fire. California has had several years of low rainfall, leaving the terrain full of tinder ready to burn.

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To understand this we need to start with the initiating spark. News reports are that the Camp Fire (named due to its proximity to Camp Creek, just north of Pulga) began at 6:30 AM on November 8, 2018. At 6:15 AM the same morning, PG&E sent a notification to regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) saying:

On November 8, 2018, at approximately 0615 hours, PG&E experienced an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line in Butte County. In the afternoon of November 8, PG&E observed by aerial patrol damage to a transmission tower on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line, approximately one mile north-east of the town of Pulga, in the area of the Camp Fire. This information is preliminary.

According to a Mercury News report, both PG&E and CalTRANS workers spotted the outbreak of the fire.  The wind at 6:30-7:00 AM was so strong they could barely stand up.  A CalTRANS worker is quoted saying “There’s nothing more anyone could have done after it started. Not firefighters, no one. The wind was carrying it so hard there was nothing anyone could do except get out of town.”  According to another Mercury News report, fire crews were on site north of Pulga within a few minutes and they immediately recognized a potentially bad situation and called for massive backup.  The location was immediately above the Poe Dam, a small hydro-electric facility in the Feather River.  There was a second fire near Magalia, in that case due to fallen tree branches bringing down power lines.

According to a Vice News report, on or beforeNovember 7 PG&E representatives went around Paradise warning residents they may shut down electricity because winds might take down the power lines. Clearly PG&E knew of the risk and was thinking to mitigate that risk.

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Potential shut-off notice left on the door of some Paradise residents shortly before the Camp Fire broke out. Source: Vice News via YouTube

A similar situation (winds affecting PG&E power lines) ignited the wildfire that destroyed part of Santa Rosa in 2017.

That’s a lot of fingers pointing at PG&E. We must recognize there is an open investigation into this, and the report above was preliminary. Indeed, PG&E issued a statement on November 10 saying in “The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined. PG&E has provided an initial electric incident report to the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations.”

Not quite coincidentally, 2 weeks before these fires broke out, on October 25, the CPUC issued a press release about a plan to protect California from wildfires caused by utility lines.  A part of SB901 which passed into law this year required “electric utilities to prepare and submit wildfire mitigation plans that describe the utilities’ plans to prevent, combat, and respond to wildfires affecting their service territories.”  A Proceeding has begun to explore and address the issues.

In a November 15 press release the CPUC discussed new requirements for when and how utility companies de-energize power lines.  A letter has been issued by the state on October 26 outlining what is expected from utility companies during Public Safety Power Shut-off Events.  According to the CPUC information page on PSPSE events, PG&E initiated a shut-off event in mid-October due to high winds and dry conditions in the North Bay area.  And as we see above, PG&E was probably in the early stages of a PSPSE event for Butte County on the eve of the Camp Fire.  Unfortunately PG&E did not move quickly enough.

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According to a Mercury News report, PG&E decided to not shut down power because it would have affected an area which had not been warned.  The warnings were issued in Paradise, but the fire was sparked near Pulga on the other side of the mountains.  Additionally a PG&E spokesperson is quoted saying “It [PSPSE] is used under specific extreme weather conditions to further reduce the risk of wildfires and is not deployed as a response to an active fire.”  In other words, once the fire started shutting off electricity was a moot point.  Another consideration is that the October PSPSE caused lots of complaints, and PG&E may have been shy of triggering another shut-down only to face more angry customers.  The article also notes a weather station in Jarbo Gap recorded sustained winds over 30 miles per hour, with gusts over 50 miles per hour, and humidity at 22 percent, and that humidity fell as low as 11 percent that day.

If we stopped with this set of information, PG&E is the likely culprit, and the Camp Fire was likely caused by PG&E power lines coming down in a heavy wind. As the Vice News report says, that will have caused the underbrush to catch fire, and then the wind propelled the fire over the mountains and into Paradise. There, story over, and in a couple years we’ll learn what damages PG&E will be paying when all the legal wrangling is done.

But, that’s not the entire story.

Climate Change and California’s wildfires

The fires that struck California this week are part of a larger pattern. According to a PBS NewsHour report, the 7 largest fires in California’s history have occurred since 2003, and over the last 40 years or so the amount of forests that burn in the Western United States have increased by about a thousand percent. That translates to a 10x increase in acreage burned every year since the 1970’s.

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Correction, according to CalFire 8 of the 20 largest fires in California’s history have been in the last four years.

There are two primary factors behind this trend. One is federal forestry management practices which sought to suppress all wildfires as quickly as possible. That interfered with the natural fire cycle in forests, causing there to be more dead wood and underbrush. That’s left the forests full of what amounts to tinder.

More importantly has been changes to the climate over the last few years. California in particular has suffered from 7 years or so of low rainfall, and most of those years were a severe drought.  In December 2016, the US Forest Service said the drought killed over 100 million trees in California. The drought was declared by Governor Brown to have ended in 2017, but of course lots of trees had died.  While rainfall increased in the winters of 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, rainfall only occurs in the winter in California, and the rainfall did not properly make up for the several years of extreme drought.

Compounding those long-term conditions was an immediate cause. Over the previous few days had dry strong winds coming from the East, drying the underbrush even more. That made for the perfect conditions for a massive wildfire. A dry forest full of dry tinder ready to burn, sparked by the downed PG&E power line. The strong wind also propelled the fire at high speed, burning about 80 acres per minute at times.

We’re warned against blaming a specific event on climate change.  Climate change is a large scale process happening across the entire planet, and is occurring over many years.  Clearly one fire is a small blip in the process that’s unfolding.  But we can clearly see in the Camp Fire the influence of climate change.

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This local news reporter managed to capture the problem with dry vegetation and local weather conditions:

A local meteorologist posted these maps of fire potential in California

According to Elvington’s data, conditions in California were extremely dry.  On Nov. 7, the day before the fire, he described it as “negative rain” meaning that heavy winds were causing evaporative drying of the landscape.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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