Why Can’t PG&E Get It Together?
Oakland, Calif. — There’s an unsettling quality to the weather during fire season in California, a frantic fluctuation from drizzle to blue skies to the dry gusty winds that transform small fires into big ones. It’s been a mild year so far. But in the wake of last year’s particularly destructive season the entire state seems to be bracing for disaster.
This past week, as the dry winds picked up again, the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings throughout the state. And Pacific Gas and Electric — the utility whose faulty transmission lines were blamed for last year’s Camp Fire — sent out a stream of emails and texts telling its customers to be prepared for up to five days without power. Our neighborhood, in the Oakland foothills, was one of those targeted to have our electricity cut.
The outages, intended to prevent a situation in which a power line sparks a fire, began on Tuesday night at midnight. On Wednesday morning, I received an email informing me that “To protect public safety, PG&E has turned off or will soon turn off your power.” At the time of this writing, half a million customers have been affected by the outages. Our power is still on. Though, according to PG&E, it could go off at any minute.
“It’s O.K.,” my 4-year-old daughter said when I told her that we might not have electricity for a few days, “we have lots of flashlights.”
Others were less sanguine. In conversations with friends, on social media, at my local coffee shop, the most common reaction has been exasperation bordering on anger. Sure, PG&E is in a tough spot, caught between potentially causing a wildfire and cutting power to millions of people. Sure, it is going through bankruptcy because of insurance payouts from previous wildfires. Sure, it’s a tough job, providing electricity for millions of people. Still, why can’t PG&E get it together and do that job safely? And, if it really does have to cut the power, can’t it manage to do so without giving much of the state a panic attack?
Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a marked uptick in my own anxiety. I’ve been sniffing the air at the slightest scent of smoke and checking the Air Quality Index nearly as much as my email. More than once, I’ve found myself deep in conversation with friends and neighbors about the relative merits of various air filters or what to eat first when your refrigeration goes. But these anxieties are really just a mask for a deeper fear: that a stray piece of charcoal from someone’s barbecue will ignite one of the regional parks nearby, that we’ll be woken up in the middle of the night with 20 minutes (if we’re lucky) to gather our most important belongings and leave.
Wildfires are nothing new to California, and the West in general. They’re as old as the forests themselves. But the long droughts, intermittently wet winters and elongated dry summers brought about by climate change have supercharged an already dangerous situation, creating bigger, deadlier, more frequent blazes. Eight of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred in the past 12 years, six of them in the past two years.
When I was growing up, wildfires felt like a chance occurrence, a random act of God not unlike the earthquakes we spent so much time preparing for. In the past few years, however, the fires have morphed into a more perennial disaster, a regularly occurring menace like hurricanes in the Southeast and flooding in the Midwest (both also supercharged by climate change). The threat of smoke and devastation, the power outages and the face masks have all become an inevitable part of fall in California, as dependable as back-to-school sales and harvest festivals.
As a Californian, I’m used to the fear of earthquakes. It’s mixed into my DNA, the constant low-level anxiety that, at any moment, the earth might slip. We did earthquake drills in elementary school, hiding under our desks with our hands clasped over our necks, after which I performed late-night incantations to ward off the Big One. But at the end of the day there’s not much you can do to predict or prepare for an earthquake. Once you’ve made your earthquake kit and bolted your bookcases to the wall, all you can really do is sit back and wait.
With fire season, it’s a more active fear. You know when it’s coming, give or take a month or two, though no one can say exactly when or where the next big fire will be. In the meantime, there’s always something to check — the weather or the air quality, the Cal Fire website or Google Maps’ wildfire layer — always a chance that the wind will pick up and one of the small brush fires nearby will jump the highway. The fear of fire is a constant threat, a loss of safe harbor and refuge that, as a parent, I find especially difficult to reconcile.
You want your children to have less anxiety than you do. (That’s the American dream, right?) Still, there’s only so much you can hide from your kids. Given all the talk of fires and smoke, it’s not surprising that my 4-year-old daughter has started to pick up some of the fears swirling around her.
“Is there a fire right now?” she asked a few weeks ago when our air filter kicked on with a little whoosh, a sign of less than optimal indoor air quality.
“No,” I said, willing myself not to verify this on my phone, “there aren’t any fires right now.”
Reassured, her face relaxed and she settled into the couch next to me.
“Dada,” she said, eventually, “where do the fires come from?”
It’s a good question. And I tried my best to give her a good answer, to explain that wildfires are both natural and man-made, that sometimes there’s a stray piece of charcoal or an errant match, that sometimes people aren’t as careful as they should be, and then there’s the question of wind. I tried to explain that fires are actually good for the forest, that they clear out the underbrush, and some trees, like the Giant Sequoia, need fires to regenerate.
That’s not the whole story, of course. But how can you explain climate change and political inaction to a 4-year-old? How do you tell her that the fires were created by all us — by the choices we make at the grocery store, by our trip to the store, by our trip to visit her cousins in Philadelphia? How can you tell a 4-year-old that we knew this was going to happen, that we’ve known for years and did nothing to stop it?