Lessons from California in 2019: The Challenges of Adapting to Climate Change

December 16, 2019 | 11:10 am
Daniel Parks/Flickr
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

There’s a perception in the US that California is a place of extremes, that it’s unique among US states—an outlier. Yet many of the state’s societal and climatic extremes, from widening income inequality to the precipitation whiplash we’ve experienced in recent years, are reflections of issues facing the nation as a whole rather than exceptions to the rule. As I look back on this year’s wildfire season in California, two extreme numbers stand out to me: 13.8 million person-days of public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) and 3 wildfire deaths. These statistics highlight two critical lessons communities throughout the US and around the world are in the process of learning: 1) Adapting to climate change is an immense challenge; and 2) Investing in disaster preparedness yields substantial benefits. Let’s take a closer look.

California wildfires in 2019

The largest of California’s wildfires this year, the Kincade Fire, burned more than 75,000 acres of land near the town of Geyserville over the course of two weeks at the end of October. Smoke from the fire blanketed Northern California for much of that time.

Long-term trends show that wildfires in California have become both larger and more destructive over the course of the last 30 years. Evidence suggests that by increasing the aridity of wildfire fuels (think dry vegetation), climate change is contributing to fires becoming larger, though decades of wildfire suppression, an increasing number of people living at the wildland-urban interface, and natural climate variability are also key factors that may be contributing to the magnitude of wildfire damage in recent years.

Against the backdrop of those long-term trends, the devastation caused by wildfires in 2017 and 2018 seemed to herald a new normal for California. But the 2019 wildfire season was notably different from the previous two years and more in line with years like 2013 and 2014, when the number of fires was high, but the fires were, on average, smaller and the number of fatalities low. Overall, the 6,872 wildfire incidents in California this year burned just over 250,000 acres—a fraction of the more than 1.5 million acres that burned in both 2017 and 2018.

While 2019 will not go down in the books as one of California’s most severe wildfire seasons, it will stand out as the first year in which millions of California’s residents were left without power as a result of public safety power shutoffs implemented by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) as well as other California-based utility companies.

Pacific Gas & Electric’s public safety power shutoffs in 2019

Public Safety Power Shutoffs (or PSPS) aim to reduce the potential for wildfires sparked by damaged electric grid infrastructure by preemptively de-energizing power lines during periods of increased fire risk. By preventing wildfire ignitions, PSPS also limit a utility’s need to then pay out damages to the victims of those fires. Fires sparked by PG&E’s equipment have ravaged the state in recent years, claiming dozens of lives and thousands of homes, and blanketing millions of the state’s residents in dangerously toxic air. Investigations have found that PG&E’s equipment sparked nearly 2,000 fires in California over the past five years, including the deadliest fire in California’s history: last year’s Camp Fire. Anticipating the scale of the payouts they would be required to make to the victims of recent wildfires, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January of this year.

PG&E wasn’t the only utility to shut off power this fall to reduce wildfire risk—Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric also implemented shutoffs—but PG&E’s were by far the most extensive.

Based on information reported by PG&E and other utilities to the California Public Utilities Commission and summarized in the CPUC’s De-energization Spreadsheet through November 22, PG&E’s 2019 PSPS affected 16 times as many customers as those for Southern California’s major utility companies. Overall, there were 19 days during 2019 when PG&E PSPS events affected residents of Northern California. The majority of those were during October and November, when, because the weather patterns causing high wildfire risk were persistent, there were times when people who had lost power during one event hadn’t even had it restored before the next round of shutoffs in their area began.

All told, the PG&E shutoffs amounted to 4.6 million customer-days without power. (Customer-days are the number of customers multiplied by the number of days of shutoffs. In other words, one customer-day would be one customer without power for one day. 100 customer-days could be 10 customers without power on 10 days, 100 customers without power for one day, or any other combination that, when multiplied, amounts to 100.)

PG&E’s “customers” include both homes and businesses—each meter is essentially one customer. When we consider, though, that the “customers” are primarily homes, it’s clear that the number of people affected is much higher. News outlets covering the PSPS events often assumed between two and three people per home. Assuming three people per home would mean there were 13.8 million person-days without power due to PG&E’s PSPS events in October and November.

To put that 13.8 million person-days into context, it would be like the entire population of Manhattan (1.6 million people) being without power for nearly 9 days or like the entire state of Wyoming (about 580,000 people) being without power for more than three weeks.

Consequences of the outages

On October 31 of this year, PG&E itself noted more than 140 incidents of damage to its equipment that could have led to wildfire ignitions if they hadn’t de-engergized the lines. We may never know whether, if PG&E had kept the electricity flowing, more or larger wildfires would have ignited or not, though the utility’s equipment has been implicated in October’s Kincade Fire. We do know, though, that a power shutoff is at best a blunt instrument. The anxiety, economic losses, anger, and frustration residents experienced tell us that this strategy—which PG&E has warned could remain widespread for the next decade—has a lot of room for improvement.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact these outages had on Northern California residents this fall, particularly the most vulnerable among us. Elderly residents of high rises lost their elevators and feared being trapped for days. Parents worried that their children whose lives depend on ventilators would need to seek emergency medical treatment. Hospice nurses scrambled to order oxygen tanks for their patients that could run without power.

Estimates of the financial costs of the outages have varied widely with some indicating that the first round of shutoffs cost upwards of $2.5 billion. But it’s clear that counties and local business owners took big hits because of the outages. As one grocery store owner described in August, business owners can rely on business interruption insurance if they need to close as a result of natural disasters. But if business owners receive advanced notice of a power outage, some insurers won’t cover the resulting losses.

The outages also highlighted how sorely in need of an upgrade our electric grid is.

Only three wildfire fatalities

With all the attention the PSPS received this year, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there were only three wildfire fatalities in California this year—a notable drop from the 100 fatalities reported last year—and none from the Kincade Fire, the state’s most destructive fire of the year. One could argue that each fire is unique, sometimes threatening highly populated areas, sometimes threatening wildlands, and that this year’s fires threatened fewer homes. And one could argue that the ratio of deaths to structures burned statewide—roughly one death for every 240 structures burned–was nearly the same last year as this year.

But it is also clear that California residents and firefighters have taken the lessons learned over the last few years to heart. Sonoma County, which has seen two major wildfires in the last three years, and the state as a whole have invested heavily in emergency alert systems since 2017. Prepositioning of firefighting equipment and tireless work by the state’s firefighters have been credited with saving an entire town’s homes.

California 2020

This year’s rainy season has set in and drawn the wildfire season to a close. The coming months, before the weather turns dry again in the spring, bring with them the opportunity to digest the lessons from this year’s wildfire season. We have learned that our grid is fragile and brittle and that we must invest in improving it in order for it to serve us safely. We have learned that if we are to use blunt instruments like massive power shutoffs as a wildfire prevention strategy, we must ensure that everyone—and particularly the most vulnerable among us—is informed and prepared. And we have learned that investing in emergency preparedness pays off in homes left standing and lives spared.

May we head into 2020 ready to translate these lessons into actions and policies that will make California a safer place to live.