National Wildfire Coordinating Group
Pacific Gas and Electric Power and Fire
The current reductions in power in parts of the State of California have been conducted under the understanding that this policy would reduce fire in the wild land and rural/urban interface. This idea is ill-considered and illogical as well as devoid of scientific evidence to support it.
While it is true that over 80% of all forest and wild land as well as rural/urban interface fires are due to human ignition, either purposely set or accidental, the vast majority of such ignition events are not associated with P.G.&E power line failures due to high winds.
In California, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released figures in July 2007 showing that 13.2% of all fires in the State were arson, 29.1% from equipment use; campfires, smoking, playing with fire by adults and children accounted for 5.6%, debris burning 9%, vehicles caused 11.8%, miscellaneous human causes at 12.2% and undetermined at 16.9%.
Data here provided is supported by National Park Service scientists as well as Idaho Fire Wise (http://idahofirewise.org/fire-prevention/common-causes-of-wildfires/). Essentially we are fire bugs. Our activities cause fires and as we build more housing into the rural areas we are the cause of more fires. We should be investing funds to find ways of deterring this propensity.
Wind as a factor in fire is uncertain.Winds can increase drying or carry moisture to an area.According to Chapter 6 of the Nation Weather Service training book, chapter 6, “light winds aid certain firebrands in igniting a fire.”
So logically, if we were afraid of wind danger, then even light winds are a problem, so perhaps we need to shut off power when there is any wind. This is supported by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s paper, “Estimating Winds for Fire Danger.” Basically their analysis creates a chart showing that winds produce a gradient of type and character, so identifying “critical fire danger winds” appears difficult and related to many factors and prediction is uncertain or like spalling an onion (see their chart below).
The mere fact that we just experienced putting over 2.5 million people in California out of power on the supposition that this would prevent fire is absurd. P.G.&E., the PUC and the Governor and the State officials are acting like children, responding in fear and helplessness when we should be developing more sophisticated means of reducing fire occurrence, of fighting fires when they start and evacuating people in danger.
Instead it all seems like panic today.We have to remember that P.G. &E. is not the one authorizing sprawl, it must provide the power, so it is towns and cities that are responsible for the increasing danger for wild fire by permitting building at the rural/urban interface and in the wild lands.
HUMAN COST AND COST IN DOLLARS
The loss of life in the 2017 California fires was 42 dead and more than $1 Billion according to estimates produced by Mother Jones Magazine on Oct. 25, 2017. On Oct 16 2017 Fortune Magazine quoted officials putting the loss of life at 40 and the loss of property and incomes at $3 billion. By December of 2017 losses had mounted to over $5 billion.
In November of 2018 the California Department of Insurance estimated the cost of the 2018 wild fires at more than $12 billion. If we use a rough estimate from the US Census in 2017 we can assume we lose about 1 billon at day from the 2.5 million people who have been deprived electrical power by P.G.&E. This means that in 20 days, if the same number of people are included, we will have lost the total amount in property and incomes lost in both the 2017 and 2018 fires.
Since this reduction of service is based on a risk assessment of fire probability caused by P.G.&E. and given that most fires are not caused by downed lines, this is a very poor bet. It will not stop other human caused fires and in fact, people deprived of electrical service will avail themselves of other means, candles, gas heaters, burning wood, driving to other locations. These methods will either increase fire dangers and/or increase pollution. Therefore it seems to me we should stop the power reductions and concentrate on 7 methods to reduce fire danger and make energy transmission safer.
- Stop building in the wild lands and forests.
- Increase subsidies for alternative energy, especially for home and business owners.
- Give P.G.& E. and other power distributors incentives to underground transmission and distribution lines.
- Increase local power generation, too much of our urban power is brought into the state or is produced in rural areas and then redistributed.
- Educate people on fire safety.
- Ban all fires in rural areas without permits.
- Ban hunting in wild lands and forests to promote herbivore reduction of biomass unless specific animals are endangered with overpopulation and its effects (disease, etc.).
While there has been a significant loss of life due to the wild fires, better evacuation and rural/urban collaboration and training could reduce these losses. However, cutting off power also affects peoples' lives, some hospitals have had to remove patients when they lost power, some people are dependent on power to survive.
We need a more organized approach to this problem.