The announcement in California of the arrival of random power shut-offs this fire season sent everyone scrambling to maps. In order to stop fires spread of fires, the impending public safety power shut-offs crashed websites as folks scrambled to get updates in real time, frustrated by the relative opacity of maps in a hub of high tech mapping and public data, as the impending possibility of power shut-offs wreaked neurological chaos on peoples’ bearings. From mapping fires, we transitioned to the uncertainty of mapping regions where consumers would lose power in an attempt to prevent fires from spreading due to strikes on live wires of broken limbs, branches, or failed transmission structures whose immanent collapse were feared to trigger apocalyptic fires of the scale of those witnessed last fires season, as the largest fire in California history raged for days, destroying property and flattening towns, burning victims who followed GPS lacking real-time information about fires’ spread.
In an eery mirroring of looking to maps to monitor the real-time spread of fires, which we sensed in much of California by smoke’s acrid air, the expectancies to which we had been habituated to consult real-time updates was transferred to the availability of electricity, in a sort of mirror image unsurprising as the outages were intended to stop fires’ spread. The decision to continue public power safety shut-offs as a part of the new landscape of controlling fires’ spread in future years–perhaps needs to be accepted for up to a decade, although this was walked back to but five years in recent years.
Expanded power shut-offs justified by needs for public safety suggest how much climate change has changed the expanded nature of fire risk. But in an era when the vast majority of televised segments that aired on network television– ABC, CBS, and NBC combined–despite an abundance of powerful image and video footage the 243 segments on destructive wildfires raging across northern and southern California, a type of public disinformation seems to have been practiced by most news outlets that served only to disorient viewers from gaining any purchase on the fires, colored by the shifting validity of climate change denial as a position among their viewing public: only eight of the news media mentions of the fires, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change as a factor in the fires’s spread, from October 21 to November 1, as the spread of fires in northern California grew that precipitated public power shut-offs. If new cycles shy away from citing climate change as a factor on the spread of fires, most of the mentions came from specific weather reporters, from NBC’s Al Roker to CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, extending the range of fire seasons and area of burn, the silo-ization of such explanations were rarely digested in mainline reporting. And if FOX ran 179 segments on the fires, more than other cable networks, climate change was mentioned in 1.7%, with most segments mocking the contribution of climate change.
If we are poorly served by the news media in reporting the fires and downplaying climate change–or indeed criticizing California for poorly maintaining its forests’ safety, as President Trump, the eery landscapes provided by PG&E raise questions about the messages they communicate.
But the electric green maps of a startlingly unnatural aquamarine, yellow, and orange suggested a strange distantiation of the landscape in the age of Climate Change. The electrified hues of the maps, which monitored the possibility of customers loosing electricity in many districts, reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change as much as the huge area that is served by PG&E, and the man-made infrastructure of electricity and transmission towers, which courts have rightly decided the privately-owned power agency that serves state residents is responsible for.
While we follow the news, even among the most die-hard news addicts, the prospect of “public safety” power shut-offs seemed unannounced and irresponsible, and a premonition of a new landscape of risk. For the shut-offs that were announced as impending by PG&E reflect a deep insecurity of fires, climate change and perhaps what we feared was a collective unpreparedness to deal with a new set of implications of climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize, but which seemed spinning out of control–even in the nature of maps that were made of it–and to betray a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, abandoning the long-term view.
The sense of emergency electrifies a landscape whose woodland-urban interface is electrified by aging power structures and transmission lines, carrying increased current to extra-urban areas. And there is a fear that the long-term view is lacking, as we continue to turn to maps, even months after the first shut-offs were announced to forestall fears of a raging fire season. As we map the expanding sense of risk to respond to both demand for currently updated real-time maps for fires, and the calamitous images of apocalyptic fires raging that dominate the news cycle and make us fear the near future, or have a sense of living with a deferred sense of emergency at our doorsteps. And so when we received a text message of impending loss of electricity, we turned en masse to maps to learn about outages at risk, alerted to the need to ready ourselves as best we could by our local government-
Extreme fire prevention funding, precarious in the Trump Era, stands to be abolished as the Dept. of Interior retreats from federal fire programs: the Wildland Fire Office, funded at $13 million in 2012, if slated to be abolished in the Trump era, in an agenda denying climate change, lacks funding, undermining close scientific examination of a new topography of fires, even as climate change has increased the costliness of fires and the ferocity of their spreads. If the costs of the Camp Fire of 2018 grow beyond $10 billion–or over six times as much as the Oakland Firestorm of 1991–those costs and the cost of insurance liabilities only stand to grow. As we confront poor planning of climate readiness, as we lack real images of extinguishing fires’ spread–and imagine the temporary shut offs can intervene as a deus ex machine to prevent fires’ spreads all we have to forestall the fears of spreading flames and intense firestorms or whirls.
In the Bay Area, where I live, the danger of the new firescape is so pressing, and so impossible to process, that we can only digest it as a danger that is ever-present, akin to living in an active seismic area, but we cannot process in a static or dynamic map.
But this is an area of risk that we are living cheek-by-jowl beside in ways that are truly unfathomable. As the power shut-off zones have been expanded in clearer detail by PG&E in response to the growing gustiness of winds that threaten to compromise the safety of residents as well as the aging electric infrastructure of the state, we are oddly haunted by past promises to maintain or upgrade our national infrastructure–the promise to rebuild national infrastructure was itself an energizing call of the Trump campaign–only to be demoted by being assigned, with improved veteran care, the opioid addiction, workforce retraining, and the Middle East peace to Jared Kushner, in ways tantamount to moving it to the way back burner, soon after being mentioned in the State of the Union as a non-partisan issue in January, 2018.
And yet, the spread of fires with increased rapidity, across landscapes that remain highly flammable, has created terrifying imagers of a highly combustible landscapes, where the recent growth of fires–in this case, the Kincade Fire that did began only long after the shut-off policies began–chart the spread of fires across terrain multiple times larger than cities, moving across the landscape rapidly, driven by unprecedentedly strong offshore winds: the passing overhead of satellites charts its expansion, making us fear the expansion of the next pass overhead as realtime images of the durations of fires only grows.
Sure, the current landscape had long seemed to be burning up at a rate we had not begun to adequately acknowledge–as Peter Aldhous promptly reminded any of us who needed reminding in Buzzfeed, providing a GIF of CalFire’s data of areas of California that had burned since the 1950s, decade by decade, in an animation of red bursts of flames atop a black map, that seemed to eerily illuminate the state by the 2000s, and hit much of the north by the 2010s, as they close,–illuminating fires as a state-localized crisis–
but the scope of human-caused fires that have consumed land, property, and habitat are a truly endemic crisis in California, he showed, in ways that he suggested reflect a parched landscape and the uptick of human-generated fires that are a direct consequence of climate change, especially in a region of increased residential construction. This sense of illumination places a huge onus on PG&E for its corporate responsibility, and the very notion of distributing electricity and power as we once did,–and illuminates the imperative to think about a new form of energy grid.
Indeed, the parsing of “human-caused fires” as a bucket suggests the real need to expand the classification of wildfires. Whereas most earlier fires were caused by lightening strikes in the western states, the expansion of housing and electricity into areas suffering from massive drought–as if in an eery reflection of the spread of “slash fires” across the midwest during the expansion of railroads that caused a rage if firestorms coinciding with World War I–press against the category of fires as wild. The deeper question that these maps provoke–as do the data of Cal Fire–is whether the term wildfires is appropriate to discuss the hugely increased risk of fires that damage or destroy property and land.
Are oppositions between energy infrastructure and wildfire is that productive for the future? The growth of “human-caused fires” in western states includes the fires from limbs that strike down current-bearing transmission lines, untended fires in parks, open barbecues, or exploded propane tanks, as well as sparks from cars or railways. Their increased number point to th need to expand buckets to analyze past fires usefully broken down and discriminated in greater depth. For like a better pathology of fires facing California, we would need open data sets of strikes on transmission towers, collapsed power lines, and electric malfunctions.
While fires seem paired with earthquakes as part of the California landscape of an increased spectrum of disaster, the increased destruction of recent fires have created a need for collective response from the private energy corporation that seems to shoulder much of the liability for the limb-strikes that have led fallen wires to set sparks in a dry landscape of dead trees and dry brush. But the new fear for consumers of outages is a new level of response that leaves us unprepared in ways we have yet to process, even as we continue to turn to maps to create a sense of stability in this landscape of unstable threats. While we can live with energy outages, for the most part, to prevent fires’ spread, the sense of a problem in our infrastructure offers little security to households, even months out of the latest Fire Season.
The new fear to engage is that shut-offs of electricity could come to be a part of our regional landscape. If Fire Season is expanding in an age of increasingly extreme climate change, the news that electricity may be cut to up to 40% of the state covered by the electric grid suggests a new level of volatility across the state–one imposed by the owners of the grid, PG&E, as grid operators, fearing the calamitous collapse of transmission wires through which bear an electrical current of over 115,000 volts. PG&E was aware of the risks of wildfires for at least central years, noting wires sagging, towers at risk of failure and of poor support due to ground erosion, fifty years older or more, and dead branches that might break to strike them in high winds. But as the prospect of the collapse of strikes that hit transmission lines in gusty conditions, sending sparks to the kindling of dead tree branches, chaparral, and brush, or even overgrown grasses, the specter of widespread shut-offs looms over California. This is a landscape, after all, haunted by inadequate inventories of aging electric transmission towers that date from the 1920s–and over half of the 230 kV system date from 1920-50.
The increased stress that transmission lines face is unknown along hundreds of miles of its power lines–suggesting that failures of towers was not at all an irregular aberration, but a near eventuality for PG&E. It has so far been the case that survivors of previous fires can accept the disruption of waking up to electric shut-offs–as are the survivors of the Tubbs fire–but the stripping of power from the landscape is at best an improvised solution, as we seek better open data about where strikes of limbs have occurred, the sturdiness of power lines, and how to respond to the new eventuality of shut-offs in parts of the extensive power grid.
If we hope for (and may soon receive!) a full and open database of complete drone data above the 100,000 miles of PG&E electric lines, as well as tree cover, we hope to establish the scale of needed upgraded of power lines. As the danger of limb strikes grow, however, they expand the proximity of Californians to fire danger and climate change–ratcheting up risks of extreme fire danger in a new landscape of fire risk.
Even as we have become habituated to real-time mapping of fires and their spreads, both from remote sensing and geothermal measurements that pierce dense smoke and cloud cover, the 100,000 miles of electric lines that PG&E supervises exposes the danger strikes conduct sparks to dry forest to ignite a fast-moving conflagration as gusts rise. If PG&E networks extend across area almost two-fifths of which is judged of “extreme risk” in the state, the topography of risk changes with the instability of electric wires. Even a complete drone dataset of the 100,000 miles of wires might be difficult to view for signs of damage, which demand walk-throughs of a scale truly difficult to contemplate, and whose infrastructure is not only aging but, in the case of a transmission line whose collapse triggered the deeadliest state fire, a full century old. A President who once championed the repair of aging infrastructure is AWOL. Reliance on a no longer adequate infrastructure disrupted a faith in the credibility long granted the privately held public utility as we try to remap the relation of the power infrastructure to the overdraw land.
The problem is both regional, state-wide, and local: increased gustiness across Northern California with the arrival of the feared hot, dry Diablo Winds across the Bay Area created a challenge for brittle, aging wooden electric and telephone poles outside most of our neighborhoods in the Bay Area, as emergency details were sent out to fix impending collapse of tresses that mounted ramrod straight Eucalyptus trunks, leaving wires in danger of falling, as teams of technicians on cranes made adjustments and needed repairs as large tree branches fell against aging cross-arms and crowded supply spaces of electric poles or higher voltage wires on transmission towers broke in the high winds. And it was not much of a surprise that PG&E focussed with something approaching panic on its own power lines, wherenthe malfunctioning of a 115, 000 volt power line had caused the deadly Camp Fire that lead to 86 deaths and destroyed almost 14,000 individual homes, rendering many more homeless only the previous years, in generating outage maps as an emergency response that the terms of its bankruptcy had permitted.
PG&E Directors must have entertained often the prospect of imposing outages, but refrained from adopting, was now allowed. With something of the demeanor of a boy caught looking at a jellybean jar, PG&E noted the possibility of “several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires” near transmission lines in the region, conjuring the precipitation of fires by high winds, and brittle branches near power lines: they noted fallen power poles, a broken part of the tower which malfunctioned in Pulga, and the danger of additional problems of distribution lines. The scenario made the prospect of outages seem a failsafe important to adopt and a new part of the landscape of fire. The fear of outages snaked in what seemed like canyons like fire itself, in fact, in the visualization that PG&E released, crowding the wild land-urban interface near city peripheries around Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland, nestling all too uncomfortably around urban areas themselves.
In a region of high-tech mapping, are these crude maps conscionable? The sudden loss of power that might arrive with little warning–in response to high seasonal winds that seem an occurrence of climate change, but are known to help whip up flames into fire whirls that generate their own tornado-like winds–runs along the edges of greener areas of the state,. They seem to mirror so many maps of power lines carrying currents to residents who have populated these areas where housing has readily been constructed and improvised since the 1970s, and began in the post-war period, providing something like the skeleton of the burn regions and blackened areas that are by now engraved in Californians’ minds, and the minds of PG&E directors.
But the sudden warning that power may be turned off for 800,000 customers across 34 Northern California counties serviced by the utility, proceeding in a custom-designed fashion, after midnight, came as a bit of a shock–waking up to no power?–and seemed a bit of corporate opacity, only barely disguised as based on scientific reason, as heat and wind increased risk beyond normal parameters.
While these poles are property in the purview of PG&E, who are responsible for their maintenance, even with spending $700 million on vegetal management of brush, trees, and plants along the web of transmission lines, the scope of dangers of fire spread cannot be tracked or monitored as adequately as is now needed.
The precarity of transmission lines in the face of offshore and diablo winds grew problematic–far beyond the scope of PG&E’s abilities, due to sustained absence of groundwater from rainfall across much of the state–outside the Central Valley, in relation to the levels of groundwater in most of the entire state, taking 2005-2010 as a base-line, before 2014–
–and seems to escape the ability of any one company to supervise vegetation with sufficient intensity without going beyond their own annual revenue.