Between the raging wildfires and the blackouts, California is now offering an abject lesson in the perils of wishful thinking. The state’s leaders may blame climate change or big utility companies, but in reality, it’s their own damn fault.
By Monday morning, Pacific Gas and Electric had broken its record for households blacked out — the company’s effort to avoid the downed live power lines that can start fires. Yet high (but not record-setting) wind gusts are still triggering wildfires, and not just in PG&E’s service area.
Why have 10 of the state’s 20 largest, most deadly fires ever occurred in the last decade? Because its forests are now twice as dense as they were 150 years ago — when the population was a fraction of today’s.
Behind that unnatural density: state and federal rules that make it near-impossible (and insanely expensive) to lay a finger on any of this precious overgrowth.
Green sentiment has beaten back the timber industry, which might have put life-saving access roads into wild areas. It has prevented controlled burns (for fear of disrupting animal habitats) and barred even minor brush-clearing programs.
When last summer’s disastrous fire killed 85, the state found a reason to blame PG&E — which was sued into bankruptcy and is still deep in Chapter 11. (Utilities that aren’t privately owned, meanwhile, don’t face the same liability under California law.) Hence its precautionary blackouts now.
And since it’ll be years before the utility can secure its lines against high winds, its customers must now expect rolling blackoutsevery fall when the powerful, hot “El Diablo” winds roll in.
President Trump had it right last summer: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.”
On his final day in office, Gov. Jerry Brown admitted as much by quietly signing bills removing impediments to “controlled burns” and allotting $190 million a year to “improve forest health and fire prevention.”
But that’s not remotely enough: California’s Forestry Department would like to double its amount of tree and brush thinning over the next five years — but isn’t sure it can.
Its deputy director, Helge Eng, sees “a significant public-education campaign ahead of us as foresters to get the public to understand” how dangerously unnatural it is to not thin out forests.
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