The recent adoption of random power shut-offs to stop fires spread of fires in California reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change. Unannounced shut-offs for “public safety” reflects deep insecurity of climate change and an unpreparedness to deal with a climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize–and a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, as well as an abandonment of the long-term view. And the long-term view is lacking, both with the 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.
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 the scale of collapse of limbs grows with higher gustiness and forests of dead or brittle trees, and even the inadequacy of inventories of electric towers that date from the 1920s–and over half of the towers of the 230 kV system was date from 1920-50, the stress thatchy have come under 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.
If we hope for (and may soon receive!) a full and open database of drone data above the 100,000 miles of PG&E electric lines, to help establish the scale of needed upgraded of power lines, the danger of limb strikes grow, and as they do, they expand the region of fire danger–and indeed ratchet up extreme fire danger, that put us 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. But reliance on a no longer adequate infrastructure has 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.
And PG&E provided a map of the fires forestalled by outages, as if to confirm their value for customers after the Public Safety Shut-Offs, that remind us all in the Bay Area how much we are indebted to them in preventing the possible start of fifty six sparking of what they call “wildfires” from the aging infrastructure that they administer.
Indeed, safety inspections after the high winds suggested that the outages had been a sort of controlled experiment for power structures and transmission lines, a stress-test of sort that revealed the clustering of incidents around the very areas that they had mapped, and a density of considerable alarm within the Wildland-Urban Interface on which all eyes have been directed since SILVIS Lab,–much more on them and their visualizations later, although at the end of this lengthy long-brewing post!–had already cautioned that they had identified as an area of risk.
The growing risk of the region of dense housing and inadequate trimming was a region using old wires to send high voltages into new areas of houses often freshly built with poor fire policies. Over in Madison, WI, SILVIS Lab had already cautioned back in 2017 that the huge ecological change of such extra-urban expansion constituted an underappreciated and significant risk, not only for the environment, as it raised problems of forest health and wildlife habitat loss but as its anthropogenic nature posed problems of elevated wildfire risk and indeed of risk without proper escape routes. And when the 2017 fires mapped neatly onto the rise of housing denisty in the Wildland-Urban Interface–WUI–in what was clearly a broad state-wide problem, that a state-wide energy corporation seemed as if it were best to uniformly address, though would be challenged to do so without federal aid if it could retain profitability–and would drain the state of finances if they undertook the mission by making the company public.
Mapping the spread of fires is usually considered as important for fire fighters, or for home-owners and residents who increasingly have come to expect real-time on-demand fire maps, but the new trigger of electric shut-offs was strikingly, less a transparent or clarifying map than an opaque one, creating such worry that the demand to download maps erased the PG&E servers, even if they were not especially information rich. The sudden demand for new information about maps was frustrated by the lack of clear information in the outage maps, and their lack of easy navigation from our handhelds, or integration with map servers: as PG&E servers crashed, with folks expecting quick answers, cursing the private power agency, and being accustomed to have online responses readily at hand, and maybe less practiced in looking at paper maps as a consequence.
1. It is hard to map the experience of living in an area of high fire risk against the frustrating opacities of outage maps. In the robust but contingent real estate sector of California’s economy, the valuation of land is contingent on fires, a contingency that has been long supressed–or repressed, because the extreme interdependence is not seen as so contingent on global warming and climate change. But as the value of beach-front coastal properties in California may be changed not only by erosion but by sea-level rise, the increasingly great dangers of fire and fire spread expose a delicate pick up sticks construction of the high valuation of houses and land, increasingly closely tied to insurance rates and insurability; the x-ray that the spread of fires created on California’s class society, showing how the wealth, super-wealthy, and rest respond to fires by opting out of public fire-fighting, the fires have exposed uneven nature of home insurance coverage in real estate in fire-prone regions, and even the ability of insurers to close policies and cease to serve areas of the state, as insurers elect to stop covering homeowners in fire zones.
The very regions of wildland-urban interface where Californians have flocked to buy what seemed affordable homes, of lovely scenery, or have been desired areas of habitability, have been removed from fire coverage policies or increased rates in unexpected leaps and bounds that stand to create cascading effects in the economy in areas of significant brush; the rise of “insurer-initiate non=renewals” have created deep scars in the realty market and economy in response to fire severity, leading courts and the State Insurance Commissioner to block their spread to prevent freefall. In ways that have created ongoing fights in the courts about the markets, the low paybacks for destroyed properties and withdrawal of insurance policies stand to create earthquakes that reveal the close tie of the economy to increased dryness and intense groundwater declines–making us more conscious of the need to map our presence in a volatile landscape of extreme climate change as a dramatically uncertain terrain.
The dangers for managing the state’s energy infrastructure far surpass PG&E’s ability to supervise–and that have challenged fire prevention strategies that have been farmed out to state parks, forest services, and national parks, although much of the fires derive from failed transmission lines carrying high voltages from property damages to increasingly populated urban interface.
With dangers ranging from the rapid intensity of fires, the increased number of acres consumed by fire, and possible risks of the airborne dispersal of smoke, and the long-term ecological effects of burnt structures and toxic fumes, or heavy metals leached into soil. The scale of increasing levels of fire risk remain poorly understood, and attributed, so interconnected are they to cascading effects and feedback loops of climate change: intense cuts in groundwater supply due to an absence of rain have changed the landscape of fire management, but in many ways begin from the lack of water in California’s soil, even in greatly wooded areas, that have created drying out landscapes of even greater risk.
In such a scenario, the blanketing of regions with energy shut-offs that prevent current running through its electric grid to areas of wildland-urban interface seem the only possible response.
Management of energy infrastructure was became prioritized as threats of high winds this Fire Season sent warnings across the state,–prompting successive alarms of electric shutoffs cascading through the state, sending people to check their addresses on interactive web maps–even if the maps of shut-offs were themselves quite crude–that led PG&E online services to crash, creating even greater panic and uncertainty in the state in what seemed new fault lines where no one knew faults existed.
The new landscape of volatility, or of extra-urban combustibility, is not only a reflection of the drying out terrain of the state or the dry woods, dead leaves, and nearly crisp chaparral, but the real estate maps of extra-urban additions that increasingly jostle next to and beside undeveloped wildland. Pacific Gas & Electric is increasingly creating incursions into these lands, keeping up with the landscape of what seems late capitalism across California. The regular recurrence of “urban interface fires” across California’s fastest-growing communities in extra-urban additions over the past three decades terrifyingly follows a map of real estate extra-urban additions, however–
–that has redefined the pyrogreography of the state, and made it into one of the states with the highest probability of burns–three times higher than most other states–and transformed its cities: air quality to among the worst in the nation, radically reframing the question of the habitability of the state–to use an index of medieval geography, as if it were a torrid zone rather than follow familiar geographic indices. There is little way out of it, as the many drivers who sought to flee Paradise, CA, site of the Camp Fire, which became deadliest fire in California history, that continues to haunt the state, both in the real estate, insurance, and energy industry, who, famously, considered shutting off power to the region in a temporary power shut-off, just before the transmission towers that started the fire collapsed under heavy winds peaked just above thirty miles per hour, with gusts above fifty miles per hour.
The results were deadly–but also largely because of how much the maps available to residents mislead. The bulk of the seventy-one people killed as a result of the raging fatalities Camp Fire died as they were directed by GPS maps to drive into the areas of the fire they sought to flee in their cars, by maps that failed to account for fire in indicating drivers the most preferable routes. As transmission towers in the Sierra Foothills fell, as the transmission tower failed at Pulga station near the Poe Dam, and a second, potentially, near Concow Reservoir, both sent sparks into dry brush, but failed to register on traffic maps or GPS, with devastating and deadly results. Can one imagine future lawsuits against poor mapping servers that lead people into burning landscapes in the future?
The fire history of the same region east of Highway 99 is not encouraging, as it bears such tragic traces of increased combustibility.
The range of fire intensity can be mapped synchronically to paint a picture of the intensity of tree loss and fire spread in most all areas of the state outside the heavily irrigated Central Valley. Fire, in Obi Kaufman’s powerful rendering, seems the destiny of the state that its inhabitants have denied–but the anthropogenic character of increased fire intensity is only being clearly confronted for agencies like PG&E that have responded to demand by building out electric infrastructure in areas of already high fire risk–a build-out they can only respond to by subtracting electricity at the drop of a match.
And yet we are compelled to map the increasingly combustible landscape, and map it repeatedly as if in the hopes to press out meaning from the landscape in hopes to make meaning out of something that is both a local, regional, and global phenomenon, as if to press significance out of it that we can better grasp. For so much lies on it. If California is something of an improbable test case for global warming–an advanced economy that lies at the cutting edge of climate change, with the most cutting edge and intensive mapping abilities at its service, there seems to be some way to serve its communities better. And in a region that relies intensely on maps, for commuting, watching weather predictions, and navigating real estate and home buying as well as school districts, parks, and criminality with increased intensity, where better but to expect better mapping of climate change?
If the report card is not good, it is because the picture is so dire, and the maps so poorly correspond to clear-headed choices or expectations. Indeed, they only multiply the parameters of danger the state is courting as it enters a climate emergency of droughts, fires, desiccation, and sea-level rise, of which fire risk is only the most prominent.
The recent plague of fires since 1995 across the state pose a question that we never expected: have the extremes of climate change forced us to return to geographical constructs of a lost past? If so, it is mediated by the nature of real estate markets in late capitalism in an overcrowded state: for the expansion of building not following regulations or preventive measures of fire safety has shaped the changing contours of risk in ways that we have been able to map most recently by the proxy measure of transmission lines across the state whose collapse has resulted in so many recent ignitions. Fires of increased burn-intensity, rapid and aggressive spread released carbon emissions in the 2018 fire season collectively totaling emissions of a year of power in the state–sixty eight million tons of carbon dioxide, as well as untold property damages and loss of lives.
This terrifying vision of the losses that fires bring has not only haunted the nation but created a corporate restructuring of Pacific Gas & Electric, the privately held power company. For the fears of past fire continue to haunt corporate policy. And if the power shut-offs that cut off electric power to provide the company time to inspect all power lines in the region seem, as the mayor of Malibu, Rick Mullen, put it, an eighteenth century technology to respond to a twentieth century problem of global warming, the mapping of shut-offs seems to have been invested with the appearance of high-tech tools, even if they were low tech approximations of where transmission lines ran–of limited actual data.
The frustratingly low informational level of these maps, which seemed to promise so much in an era of high mapping of fire spread, intensity, and directions, responded to gustiness more than fires, but imagined the threat of fires that seem only destined to grow in the feedback-loop of climate change and global drying that afflicts the state. The vivid aqua of recent outage maps snake across the landscape that reflect not only the imprint in their iridescent glow, but fail to educate consumers by keys that might adequately orient them to the imminent topography of combustibility, or the dangers of fires but only trace the negative spaces where power was at risk of being suspended across the state–roughly following the above-ground power lines that run across the woodlands-urban interface, telling us what those of us who have been looking at fire maps over the previous three years already know, and maddening most by raising the prospects of suddenly losing electricity, cel service, radio contact, and perhaps even the ability to charge their cars.
The maps might be confused with a form of readiness. They seemed a rather desperate attempt to escape similar levels of financial liability to find a shred of liability release and summon a sense of corporate responsibility by suggesting that they prioritized public safety in an era when public safety is in crisis mode.
Of course, PG&E is in crisis mode–and the maps reflect their difficulties in shouldering the possibility of liability for future fire outbreaks. Faced by bankruptcy, and apparently conceiving itself without funds to trim trees or prioritize the maintenance of transmission lines, the power behemoth has resisted spinning out parts of its extended enterprise, but rather insisted on its continued profitability, without, apparently, acknowledging the risks that the continuation of extreme weather in the state might cause. The resulting maps of shut-offs that were reflexively announced at the first word of high gustiness-surprising many consumers, created skeletal images of the forced closure of electricity to hillside towns, ravines and moutainsides in once bucolic areas, where property is sold in hopes to perpetuate the vision of bucolic hillside towns, which now looked like sculptures of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, as if natural sites of aggression, or jagged lines ripping across a natural landscape,–
–if not, more situationally appropriately, as this image by the Otolith Group from a film that reflects the seismically disruptive landscape of California, the creation of the anthropocentric environments that we have created in what was once prized as a landscape of pristine nature, as if this existed, but is now increasing at growing risk of being scarred as a man-made landscape is electrified.
For the maps of forced electrical shutoffs are truly creations an anthropogenic environment, if they are supposed to respond to wildfire risk. They reflect a new fear of the management of landscape, and of electrical infrastructure, based on the spaces served by the infrasctures of electrical power transmission lines, and the regions that they affect.
Rooted in the current growth of urban interface, the topography of landcover where older electric infrastructure bears new loads of coursing current provides the chance for transmission lines to create ignition points for fires, in the stripped-down maps that provided the basis for the outage maps PG&E posted in the Fire Season of 2019, haunted by the memories of the burnt landscapes of the 2018 fires.
Even as the Department of Interior of the Trump administration blamed poor forest management, the location of fires suggest that “proper forest management” was less a problem than the poor oversight of the expansion of realtor’s rapid remapping of extra-urban additions across the state–in the very regions where residents were effectively warned by the energy company itself that it would adopt new policies of cutting electric power that took full advantage of emergency powers it was granted as it entered bankruptcy, announced at a dedicated website it unveiled, www.PrepareForPowerDown.com, in order to reduce its liabilities, even if it only announced it only introduced “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” in order to “keep communities safe” in the eventuality the state continued to face extreme weather in the future.
If this is a landscape of late capitalism, and the burgeoning real estate market, the maps of outages are echoes of the far deeper, pressing questions of the landscapes of risk we have often forgotten to map with needed accuracy–even if we fear the destruction of the very extra-urban additions that have been broadcast to the nation as if they were the bombed out battle sights of global warming, and we have yet to map in the parameters of a climate emergency or bureaucratic irresponsibility.
While the map was not about to receive much circulation even as PG&E representatives visited California cities to inform communities on the urban interface for the eventuality of a power shut-off of “public safety,” the image by which most of the state was haunted by drone imagery from the previous fall was of the burnt-out areas of Paradise, CA and of Santa Rosa, from previous years, that so surreally seem to transpose what are bombed out areas of war fields and American suburbia with an almost hallucinogenic quality that bodes fears for the future of California–and, after this map appeared from the California Public Utilities Commission, haunted PG&E enough to provide a basis or template for warned outages.
Even as the energy company promised investments to “make its grid sturdier,” it predicted the likelihood of executing shut-offs “multiple times” in the future, as it indeed had in the Napa Valley Fires of 2018, but which it had not in the 2017 North Bay Fires which had caused $14.5 billion in property damages or the 2018 fires that had raged across an unprecedented 1.9 million acres–a surreally tipping point of sorts, transcending poet Walt Whitman’s query of readers’ ability to reckon a thousand acres by a multiple of thousands–and exceeded 16.5 billion in property damages in the Camp Fire alone, which PG&E is still trying to accommodate victims for property loss, wrongful death, or loss of residences. If the ongoing deep-lying effects of an officially over drought have conspired to create a shortage of underground reserves in the entire state, compromising the state of its forests and undeveloped areas in ways that go far beyond “forest maintenance,” it has created a lopsided continental map of fire risk whose consequences will be felt for decades.
The ever-increasing uncertainty of the landscape multiplied in unknown ways with the spread of power shut-offs whose enactment appeared a straw that broke a collective back: if the threat of smoke had created panicked uncertainty across the Bay Area in previous fires led residents to shift from the color-coded *AirNow” EPA maps of air quality–3.2 million in a week, causing the site to crash–during the Camp Fire, and rushed to interactive open source alternatives for greater security, the insecurity of announced electrical shut-offs seemed to make the state all the more inhabitable, and suggest that the relation of habitable and inhabitable lands was being rewritten by climate change with unforeseen rapidity, as the maps from the California Public Utilities Commission that provided the basis for PG&E to warn of electrical shut-offs registered, based on the expansion of areas of urban interface in Northern California on both sides of the San Joaquin Valley, an area not serviced by PG&E.