As the haze is again settling over San Francisco and blanketing the Bay Area, fire season has begun again in Northern California. The densely populated Bay Area is surrounded by levels of particulate matter from the fires based in the Sierra Nevada, sending some flakes to San Francisco, as alerts are issued to those in Santa Rosa, Livermore and San Jose sensitive to air quality to avoid extended outdoor activities, and reduce their time out of doors.
The new strategies of fire containment, however, that have been adopted by PG&E, after the private company used its privileges to declare power shut-offs in ways that did not seem so “surgical” at all–leading led Bay Area State Senator Jerry Hill to remind the corporation that all safety shut-offs “must be a surgical, last resort measure,” not a knee-jerk method of containment–although what a “surgical” sort of shut-off of electricity would be was unclear, as it would presuppose an assessment of transmission poles, the clearing of nearby trees, and tools of pinpointing high winds. In an era when, in the East Bay and in Oakland, we’ve been looking at fire warnings in public service announcements placed on the side of park entrances and highways for over ten years,
the emergency warnings that extended a red flag alert of extreme fire danger to the entire Bay Area on October 8.
The increased gustiness of winds generalized a sense of extreme fire danger, reminding us of the broad state of fire in a drying state, where rainfall has created a rage of fires across the state. Obi Kaufman has compiled the fearsome image of fires across the state in a rather fierce water color map, which belies its medium, that serves to picture the spread of fires across the states’ counties more concretely than the best remote sensing allows–and indeed how fires have increasingly shaped the topography of the state–raising the deep, primeval fears of fire as a plague of contiguous burning regions across the state, as if its entire surface is lit by fires that bled into one another, moving across space in record time.
Numbers of residents displaced by the fires over the last five years in California stands as a human rights crisis, particularly acute among lower-income residents of the state, often displaced by loss of homes which leaves them without options of relocation. Because most communities in California wait an average of five years until homes are rebuilt after fires subside, the increasing occurrence of “wild” fires in the state significantly increase the income divides, diminishing the amount of available housing stock across much of the state, and increasing the cost of rentals after fires have been extinguished,
One must read the map of the occurrence of fires in the past five years is also a map of displacement, and pressures on public housing, and of the increased salience of a public-private divide afflicting the local economy and all residents of the state, and standing to disrupt the common good more precipitously than property loss can map: the occurrence of fires around the so-called urban-wildlands periphery, where many seeking housing are also pushed–outside of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles or San Diego–creates an apocalyptic scenario where many of the suburban residential areas are consumed by raging fires, displacing residents who will find it even harder to find a home.
The mosaic of the fires seems an impossible challenge to process or parse. But it suggests the impossibility of removing the range of fires that have occurred in the last five years form the cities where populations are concentrated in California, and indeed confirms the surreal nature of how a sustained absence of precipitation has ringed the capital with hugely destructive fires, which despite their individual names suggest the new landscape that tightening resources in the state are compelled to address, both in prevention and mitigation even as the costly nature of controlling what has been an almost year-round fire season creates a budgetary costs few have prepared for:
Is Kaufman’s map the true map underlying the panic at the possibility of new firestorms? It will help us take stock of the dissonance of the maps that PG&E presented of electric shut-offs, and the contorted syntax of public explication of the potential shut offs of elec. We were warned to potentially be the very wind conditions that in 2017 helped spread the North Bay Fires, rendering immediate danger signs throughout the Oakland Hills where memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 were still raw, inscribed in the landscape, as the largest suburban conflagration that spread from the Oakland Hills over the weekend, as the Tunnel Fire was fanned by Diablo winds in late October, destroying hillsides of homes, and pain, shocking residents in ways that would barely receded from the public imaginary by the time of the North Bay Fires were fanned a quarter of a century letter. The mosaic of the regions that were consumed by fire in the past five years in California reveals something of a patchwork quilt. But the dramatic expanse of the Camp Fire that consumed the city of Paradise, CA suggested a new era of fire regimes, as it flattened the city in ten minutes, creating refugees of climate change on our own soil as it destroyed 14,000 family dwellings and displacing 50,000, with refugees across Yuba City, Chico, Sacramento, and across Butte County. Nearby, the devastating fire was witnessed differently than other wildfires: as the air entered our lungs in the Berkeley, Davis, and Sacramento, and we witnessed the sun go red and skies grey. While the fire was removed, it was immediate, inhabiting multiple spaces at once, if burning across a wooded landscape and consuming huge carbon reserves.
NWS warned about this danger of fire, which couldn’t have been clearer in anyone’s mind, or to PG&E’s new board of directors as they were forced to decide upon a plan of action with the growth of Red Flag warnings in much of the northern state.:
If the dystopia of Fire Season lay last year in raging firestorms that consumed homes, tract housing, and high carbon forests, the safety measures that were adopted after the North Bay Fires of 2017 to curtail corporate responsibility have become a new dystopia, of intermittent power supply, immediately inconveniencing the poor, elderly, and infirm, as a temporary safety tactic was extended to thirty-four of fifty-eight counties–over half–as if this was a new strategy of fire prevention or containment.
For Califorrnia’s largest publically traded utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, faces charges it is unable to maintain, respond, or oversee a state-wide safety issues beyond its control, even if it has entered bankruptcy. The state utility company has been widely blamed for failing to maintain the safety of its transformers has just openly recognized its transformers were the “point of ignition” of the recent tragic fires–exposing itself to 11.5 billion in damages for what was the most deadly fire in California history as it spread across 150,00 acres that the admission of a site of ignition and previous charges for which its equipment was blamed, if not $30 billion in damages.
California’s legislature had tried to extend support to the utilities company in the wake of previous fires to spare it from previous wildfire liabilities; the reluctance to extend any similar security to PG&E has turned to anger in the face of the current destruction, however, reflects huge discontent with continued abilities of forest management and outrage at the scope of the devastation of local neighborhoods, and the scale of the destruction of over 18,000 buildings in the Camp Fire. Even as the current scare has retreated, allowing air quality to improve for now around much of the Bay Area,
there are steep charges PG&E improperly maintains forested areas and trees in proximity to electrical wire–especially dangerous in a parched landscape that has lacked rainfall over multiple years. After the rapid spread of the fires of the Camp Fire, after multiple combustive wildfires to scorched the North Bay in October 2017 that killed forty-four, it is hard to single out poor maintenance as the issue at stake in the fires’ spread. Yet the corporate entity has become blamed on inadequate repairs, maintenance, or poor record keeping, as if such bad practices left state residents increasingly vulnerable. Even if most dismissed President Trump’s wilder claim that the spread of fires in Northern and Southern California were due to “gross mismanagement of the forests,” the notion of blaming the utilities company for its negligence seemed more credible. But building beside grasslands and desiccated forested land have created a new geography of fire and of fires’ spread–revealed in satellite measurements of the fearsome spread.
The liabilities that the power company was assessed for the destruction with which the recent fires’ spread undercut its credibility and increased a sense of its negligence, removed from the extreme weather the state has faced and for which few containment strategies exist. To be sure, the demand to define a felon seems to have overridden the danger of placing transmission lines near forested areas without rain. The aftermath of the fires–perhaps critically the time since Paradise, as it were–has created a sense of nervous breakdown in assessing, monitoring, and mitigating fire danger, it almost seems, as we rush to individuate and indicate clear blame for a changing climate and a lack of response to a decreased level of precipitation rarely experienced, in the need to identify a clear cause or victim for such massive and persistent disequilibria that undermined the public good and well-being in the apocalyptic fires northern and southern California faced, and the terrifying alarm before maps of the fires’ destruction and accelerated spread, perhaps without pausing to consider inter-relations that create a radically new firescape. And the outage maps that PG&E issued to its clients as gustiness of winds grew suggested a similar remove from an overderied landscape, long lacking rain.
And the maps that were issued to make the case for the outages weren’t that convincing, seemed quite improvised, if they did alert customers to the impending danger of power outages as a response to contain future fires. The loopy maps that were recently issued by PG&E, California’s very own home-grown for-profit energy company, to its customers or “consumers” seemed a weak public wager of confidence. After hemming and hawing, apparently, about deciding how to respond to the forecast of possible high winds returning to northern California, a region over recent decades that is haunted by fires by every earlier autumn. Whether they actually prevented fires–as PG&E insists, and left us all to sight with relief–or not, the hodge-podge constellation of overlapping parcels of indicating potential electrical shut-offs was disorienting–
–and didn’t create more clarity by drilling deeper down into Bay Area neighborhoods..
Were the maps a warm-up for the difficulties of managing the threat of fire in a new fire season? Our “fire season” now stretches past winter, if not lasting all year, and its length has created such problems of management that PG&E elected to announce last Tuesday evening that the power was being turned off to over 800,000 of its customers preventively, affecting what might be upwards of 2.5 million individuals. It did so by exploiting an ability that it had gained after inadequately struggling to respond to past fires that had caused damage across the state, but intense loss of homes and property in Northern California, after the Camp Fire almost a year ago in 2018;, combined problems of infrastructural management and climate issues of a lack of rain it was unable to face, management of which was triple jeopardized after it had declared bankruptcy as a private corporation, which this time shut the power preemptively as the gusty winds began to blow.
This being California, it was significantly striking that the turquoise rings seemed electrified version of the iconography of radiating earthquake tremors, and caused a comparable alarm.
The maps were hardly much grounds of confidence, born as the board of directors hunkered down in preparation for those dry, warm wind of winter to sweep across Northern California. They were announced to be the result of the sudden arrival of “unprecedented fire risk,” even as the highest temperature anomalies recorded in the state had been published online since early summer, as dry autumn winds of increasingly high velocity returned to raise fears across the state, setting off alarms for a new geography of firestorm risk.
For “risk” in this case meant winds, and fire danger was understood as an intersection, as in a Venn diagram, between combustible undergrowth and winds that could carry dangerous embers from downed power lines–the apparent paradigm of recent outbreaks of what the media still calls–with PG&E–“wildfires,” as if they were due to a failure to thin the woods.
This may be the best optic through which to understand the awfully loopy maps that the company released, in an attempt to suggest that this time it really had the situation under control, or at least to dodge the danger of not seeming to have responded to verifiable risk. The responsibility of PG&E exercised over the electrical infrastructure of the state had led to its ability to monitoring weather privately to determine the urgency of shutting off residents’ power, allowing customers to consult a weather webpage to ensure some sense of transparency.–and security–until it crashed under broad demand for answers. The project of educating customers to the possibility of unprecedented outages raised questions responsibility and agency that many felt the private company had not been delegated authority to adjudicate.
The prediction of gusts of wind from the Great Basin over areas that still bear traces of firestorms created a broad sense of alarm, however, and with good reason. High gusts of dry air had spread firestorms of huge destruction, crumbling steel lattice structures of aging transformer towers that sent power lines crashing into dry underbrush, in Pulga, as low precipitation, low atmospheric moisture, and sparks led to particularly extreme consequences: debates about what “good forest management” has led to concern about the strength and durability of elevated electric wires knocked down by the force of high winds, pushing brush fires that became firestorms over vaster areas than firefighters had been used to manage–or fire fighters had even recently imagined. It led many to contemplate the stubborn fact that an expanded network of elevated electrical wires, bearing charge, running more prominently than ever before across a wild lands-urban interface, with terrifying consequences.
Despite the complexity of expertise required to explain the fires’ spread and indeed the problems of forest management, the maps that PG&E issued to explain outages were not clear. Only earlier this year, Judge William Alsup called the PG&E “the single most culpable entity in the mix” within the current “crisis that California faces on these wildfires.” This led several attorneys had sued the company for the huge damages of the Camp and North Bay wildfires eagerly listened, happy that some accountability did seem to be in the air. But as PG&E had let its budget for reducing trees near transmission lines whither, they seemed to illustrate utter irresponsibility in neglecting “a large number of trees that should have been removed, and that appears to be the single biggest factor in the 20107 and 2018 fires,” demanding that the fire mitigation plan of the energy corporation follow state law by trimming trees that might contact power lines in high Fire Season winds, which were only expected to grow, and placing there corporation on probation. The limited sensitivity of CEO Bill Johnson to the question of trimming may have not been able to be dislodged from how his salary was being pegged to safety performance, as much as responsible maintenance.
Judge Alsup had ominously warned the corporation it would be bad in the docket come December, wen the number of wildfires PG&E started would be reckoned, and he hoped it would be none: the expectation were balanced by the significant bonuses Johnson would gain if he created conditions to allow the stock of the utility company bounce back to the heights they enjoyed in 2017. And the power of PG&E to shut power of temporarily to 500,000 and ten 800,000 Californians provoker indignation but were won as a right to announce “public safety power shut off” with little warning was won, without being imagined to be used in such an aggressive and proactive fashion as Johnson and his Board seem to have done, raising questions about the current corporate culture of PG&E, if it had committed to “only consider proactively turning off power when the benefits of de-energization outweigh potential public safety risks.” These benefits were not only regarding safety, but the dangers of being found negligent in managing the energy infrastructure.
The problems of fire management that this mapping of fires revealed was both problematic, and difficult to respond to: PG&E asked–or demanded?–the ability to shut off power in high-velocity winds in response. The consequences were not only personal inconveniences. They may well have compromised valuable cancer research on temperature-controlled cultures within a week of conclusion, costing 500K and countless hours of lab work, as controlled experiment were rushed to San Francisco. Even if a warning on October 9 let folks know that the private energy agency “continues to warn of a power outage,” the absence of anything like expectations of such a shut-off or even plans to deal with the web traffic that meant that the “inconsistent” and at time “incorrect” information on the PG&E website, which would continually crash due to high volume of folks seeking information urgently, led to a broad swath of apologies that however refused to admit any underlying fault–“I do apologize for the hardship this has caused but I think we made the right call on safety,” said CEO Johnson, who arrived at PG&E only recently from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and installed a new Board: Johnson is a proud long-time Grateful Dead fan, but may be more conscious his salary was tied to safety performance than California topography or corporate ethics, and expected that the state would rapidly accept a declaration of fire emergency.
Perhaps the arrival of winds didn’t inaugurate a “fire season,” however, but revealed a new aspect of the electrical infrastructure about which no clear working process had been devised or imagined. If such winds inaugurated the “fire season” in California, this was now not an issue to be addressed by thinning forests or environmental management alone–the large carbon loads of forests had gained an increased vulnerability to high-charge electric sparks, in ways that had exponentially expanded the vulnerability of the landscape to fire, and risk of firestorms,–
–of the very sort that had generated ever more terrifying images around the time of the Camp Fire of statewide fire risk; winds that created conditions for the fire fanned the flames further, at higher velocities, to create firestorms and new management challenge of fire whirls, or vortices of flames of extreme heat intensity.
Did it all start with dry winds, or with carbon loads, or with live electric lines suspended in what were revealed to be dangerously unstable ways? Heat maps of the nature of air quality became seared into northern California residents’ minds.
The high gusts running through trees that received far less water or snowpack than in previous years, the deep worries both among PG&E administrators who balanced their abilities of oversight of the electrical infrastructure with their public responsibility, was mirrored in the haunted nature of the Northern California residents who had seen increasing numbers of fire men stream into the areas near Chico, Sacramento, and the North Bay or the Sierras and Yosemite each Fire Season like clockwork in previous years–in ways oddly dissonant with bucolic green surroundings.
This time round, the temperature anomaly alone had offered some guide to prediction of the eventuality of future fires, but provided little guideposts to the possibility of managing the situation at hand. The arrival of winds were terrifying, and not only to PG&E. The gustiness of local winds seem new indices that will mediate all future responses to what Daniel Swain called the ongoing firestorm of California, and are destined to filter our future collective reactions to future fires’ spread.
While the maps of outages seem to convey a weird spectral sort of precision, they suggest an architecture of emergency response that blankets all areas of the now legendary woodlands-urban periphery with darkness, as if in an attempt to rationalize the impending outages that have been paralleled with offers to set up cell phone charging stations, were hardly reassuring.. Promising lavishly to set up a designated communications network with its clients and customers, that seemed a bit like not allowing the news to get into the game, preferring texts, emails, and robocalls as a way of staying in touch and broadcasting emergency to folks who it assumed would have fully charged phones–because who lets their phones run low–though it wasn’t clear communications could continue if outages lasted the full “five days or longer” as announced. The company had its own private team of meteorologists, to prevent any redundancy from designated communication with the NWS or NOAA. But trust us, POG&E seemed to say–as Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, put it, “some of our customers may experience a power shutoff even though the weather conditions in their specific location are not extreme.”
The memories of the Camp Fire created a sense of disorientation before the impending arrival of high winds, which triggered a memory of the massive destruction of property and loss of lives even as the much of the nation is distracted on other media sources, and indeed by greater problems of irresponsibility. With the memories of the Camp Fire and to the North Bay Fires of the fixed in our head, from the toxic air they across the city, to streams of refugees who lost their homes, we had only just started to face the first evidence of the start of a new fire season in smoke from the first fires, which only last year had made Northern California site of the worst air quality the world, as we studied maps of how the Firefighters have made progress containing the deadly Camp Fire was tired to be contained. As we tracked the fear of fires growing not only near Los Angeles, but near Chico,
we faced a new beast in the unprecedented power shut-offs that became a possibility for hundreds of thousands of customers of the utility company over the last week, a highly controversial act that enabled power to be preventively cut to regions in California that we tracked through loopy maps of potential shutoffs, shown in alientating map layers that seemed to glow with radioactivity, as the authority of the utilities company had assumed in public life in California, elevated after a series of mismanagements or mishaps, meant that the combat of ever-present fire threats extended to the disruptive dangers posed by power shut-offs, perhaps strategic.
But the maps offered no clear logic to their arrival or creation, though they seemed to follow global curvature, akin Bowie net, though the GPS loops didn’t also overlap so often, and derive from power lines on a local level. The threat of interruptions of electricity seemed issues of global importance, altering access to electricity and shifting many to local generators–even closing the University of California for a few days until wind levels died down.
The large, privately held public utility company elected, with winds forecast from Wednesday through Thursday to reach velocities as high as sixty to seventy mph at taller elevations of the state, to adopt what was called “PG&E’s state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the ignition of wildfires during high-risk periods”–presumably because it was in bankruptcy, more than or as much as a form of public protection, at a time that PG&E has its back up against the wall. The widespread “voluntary” withdrawal of power supply was due to a failure of risk management, and the dangers of firestorms that could not be contained. The threat of electrical transmissions lines malfunctioning, collapsing, or igniting brush–as had begun the conflagration known as the Camp Fire of 2018 and the Tubbs Fire and the North Bay Fires of 2017, lead Berkeley residents to be asked to evacuate the Hills–an area where evacuation would be judged difficult in an actual emergency. The extensive elderly population dependent on life-sustaining electrical medical equipment–oxygenators; dialysis machines; ventilators–whose loss of power could pose diastrous health risks. Even the announcement of power loss could trigger panic sending customers into a tail spin.
Since the potential outage map on the PG&E website first appeared, and before it crashed, significant panic grew as the need to follow a careful protocol seemed absent in the energy corporation’s plans. The maps revealed in complex if simple fashion a blanketing of many of the areas of the Berkeley Hills-based on what must have been the newly launched website PG&E had devised to help customers prepare for wildfires readiness, and indeed presented to the Berkeley City Council this past July about the potential for emergency ‘public safety power shutoffs’ and presumably also the need to develop a strategic response given the problems of residents who relied on electricity for medical devices, cel towers, and city reservoirs, who would all be thrown into disarray in the eventuality of a “public safety shutoff” that the energy company had recently acquired–or been forced–to adopt. The sort of outage map that PG&E distributed were low on actual information, and rich with apparent looniness and difficulty to read,–
–the image of state-wide potential outages even more generic at such small scale. The map is more suggestive of targeting of sites of past ties created by sparks from wind-driven fallen transmission lines or as a result of the sudden collapse during high winds of aging electrical infrastructure. All state residents were alerted to update their contact information to receive more local bulletins at pge.com/mywildfirealerts, a dedicated communications infrastructure over which PG&E held all strings; any possibility of confused communications was sought to be contained–as was that of examination of the protocol for delivering information.Continue reading