ORIGINAL REPORTING: California must pick when and where to fight wildfires
Record wildfire threats mean California must pick when and where to fight, utilities, analysts, CalFire agree; Winds, drought, heat and land uses take utility-critical questions of wildfire fight beyond utilities
Herman K. Trabish, May 27, 2021 (Utility Dive)
Editor’s note: The concept of controlled burns is gaining traction as the missing piece in California’s fight to manage the wildfire threat.
In 2020, California had over 9,900 wildfires, which burned a record 4.25 million acres and killed 33 people, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). It is time for California to rethink its approach to wildfires, stakeholders said. Both wildfires and utility-owned power lines run throughout California’s federally-, state- and privately-held forest lands.
Regulated utilities have caused less than 10% of California's wildfires, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), but a California constitutional provision makes utilities financially liable if their equipment is involved in, without causing, a fire’s ignition. As a result, the state’s three dominant investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and their customers have incurred costs for fires involving their equipment on lands where public agencies' efforts to avoid fires has been inadequate, stakeholders said. This has put the IOUs at the center of California wildfire debates.
"The utilities are making progress, but their problem is not the same as California's," said Michael Wara, Senior Research Scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Wildfires. "We need to think in a new way about wildfires" and "about when and where to fight."
California’s utilities and firefighting agencies are working to address the daunting statewide challenge. All of their work "can probably never be enough, but we are doing what is within our capability to prevent fires," CalFire Battalion Chief and spokesperson Captain Jon Heggie said.
Utilities’ multi-billion-dollar mitigation efforts are expanding, though customers remain dissatisfied with their use of public safety power shutoffs (PSPSs), Wara, Heggie and other stakeholders agreed. A bigger question about mitigating California wildfires may be the extent of future involvement of federal authorities, which is especially important to utilities. As population expansion requires power lines deeper into fire-threatened wildlands, utilities’ liability grows even where others' control of lands leaves them unable to mitigate hazards that may involve their equipment and make them liable.
A complete response may require first recognizing how the climate crisis is accelerating wildfire impacts and then shaping the state’s fight to when and where it can win, Heggie, Wara and utility representatives agreed… click here for more